The identical cameleon

chameleo_parsoniiNow that I have started to acquire some degree of mastership in several languages, I am beginning to wonder about the side-effects of being a polyglot. Googling the term “polyglot” I came to the wikipedia page dedicated to multilingualism. According to some studies, there is a difference being made between “compound bilinguals” and “coordinate bilinguals”. The difference is that the first group understand the two words in two different languages designating the same thing as referring to the same concept or thing, while the second group would associate these two words with two different concepts. In the second group, people will tend to express two different personalities in these two languages. However, this is an ideal-type and bilinguals are a bit of both. I would certainly be in the middle, with a tendency to being a “coordinate bilingual”. I find the distinction rather strange and unclear. According to this distinction, only the first group is a group of fluent speakers in both languages. I wonder if the classification is not made by monolingual people. It seems to me that the first group is very likely not to be bilingual. To take the example given, a “chien” and a “dog” are the same for them. But this is non-sense. Sure a dog is a dog is a dog. But there are so many different cultural references associated to the dog in each language, that it just does not make sense to associate the two words with the same thing, when they have two different lexical fields associated with them. “Dog!” is not a very strong insult in English, whereas “Chien !” is definitely a powerful expression of disgust towards a person’s behaviour in French. Furthermore, the British tradition for pets would also certainly add different dimensions to what is associated with the word “dog” than in French. And, finally but not exhaustively, I could think of one’s own personal experience in England or France related to dogs, and appreciation of the treatment given to dogs in each culture.

I was not particularly good at school in languages, but I realise now that it may have been because languages are taught in school in one’s mother tongue, and people are forced to be “compound bilinguals”. I am now much better at learning languages, because I am learning on my own, and with my own method. I try to learn a language as a native would, and embrace the whole culture that comes with it, rather than trying to think in my referring mother tongue and translate systematically with the idea that all the words designing concepts in my “own” language have a translation.

Doing so, I have come to develop different personalities, and undermine or loose the original one. I grew up in France, and sometimes I do not even know how to express myself in French any longer. I left France and kept a literary connection with French. Coming back to France, it seems to me that no one speaks French correctly, and that French is and should only be a written language, since it is so demanding. I have for instance a hard time being funny in French, unless I have to write. On the contrary, English seems to be the language of humour. Perhaps, the reason is that I enjoy all the American situation comedies, and the satirical shows, as well as the English ones.

In Danish, I am still wondering how to be. It is still difficult finding the Danish me.

Of course, learning languages this way is much more fastidious, but I think it is the only way to truly learn them. One could say that I am monolingual in several languages, with more or less vocabulary. I enjoy particularly the way a language sounds, and learning how to pronounce correctly. It demands a lot of effort and concentration however, and often it is easier to start from reading out loud a text, than actually uttering a thought, as it drives the attention away from the sheer pronunciation. The shift from one language to the other is not easy however. It requires a few minutes of adaptation, and sometimes I may even sound foreign in my own mother tongue.

There is a new wave of cosmopolitan writers writing in a foreign language, or mixing foreign languages with their native language, or again re-inventing their native language with forms of expressions and thinking that are foreign. There is surely a lot to develop for a cosmopolitan literary theory.

From the nation-state to the cosmopolitan-state: politics and culture for the 21st century

Thank you Peter for commenting on “Polyfonias” and delving into literary analyses.

brueghel-tower-of-babel1I would like to add to your comment on monolingualism. It seems that today we have forgotten our past when it comes to language. Our past was Babelian (but not in the sense that the myth should serve the construction of a universal homogeneity — a powerful Judeo-Christian myth), Babelian in the sense of the plurality of languages. This proximity without a nation-state to impose one national “mother tongue” involved a necessary understanding of other cultures and languages, when exposed to them.

This is not talking about any “intellectual elite”. Central and Eastern Europe, what in the USA has been called the “new Europe”, but which is not a good description of this part of Europe, one should rather speak with Czesław Miłosz of the “other Europe” (bad French translation of “Rodzinna Europa” or “family Europe”). If one looks at a map of all the historical frontiers drawn for the past 150 years in Europe, one is struck by the fact that this “other Europe” is completely dark. Cross-cultural and multilingual exchanges have been common to most of the populations there, outside any overarching authority. Simple peasants were multilingual by birth and by necessity, simply because people were living together speaking different languages.

Even inside centralised countries such as France, it is only because of jacobinism, and the late 19th-century construction of the national state with a national culture that French and a “French identity” took over regional languages and cultures. So much so, that it has long been considered archaic and un-modern to nurture such regional cultures. But why would they be? In Spain, it has not been so and Catalunya is for instance much more recognised as a culture and language. After all, there are more inhabitants in Catalunya than in, say, Denmark. Why would one be only a region and the other a nation-state?

The congruence between culture and politics is an invention of the late 19th century national-state construction. The imposition of a single language, and by there a single culture, supposedly national is con-substantial with this form of nationalist project.

“Cosmopolitanism” need not be an elitist project. First, cosmopolitanism has been labelled elitist and utopian by nationalists themselves in the late 19th century. “Cosmopolitans” were labelled as some dangerous enemies of the national unity, and the “patrie” because of Montesquieu’s theory that a democracy can only survive if its members love the laws and cherish the res publica. During the 18th century the “cosmopolitan” is labelled as a traveller, touring Europe, and having no fixed “patrie”. Therefore, how could he/she be a good patriot? The term symbolised the aristocrats, married to several European aristocratic families. These people were rejected during the revolution, as “tyrants”, and Sieyes and others replaced the King with the “nation”. However, the “nation” at that time was a very cosmopolitan one, it included just any freeman in the world. The French revolution was supposed to be a beacon for freedom. So much so that foreigners were included, and became members of the “national assembly”. So much so that some of these “foreigners”, like Anacharsis Cloots, would proclaim humankind the sole sovereign, and the only possible nation. The concept of “nation” at that time was thus not yet “nationalised” into a French, a Danish or a Spanish nation. This came later. Soon enough however, the idea of nation became exclusive. Cosmopolitan “idealists” like Cloots were sent to the guillotine — this wonderful modern invention used in France until 1981 (1977 last execution).

However, this position of opposing nationalism and cosmopolitanism is not tenable and confusing many things. First, it assumes that cosmopolitanism is based on the idea of a cosmopolitan, and nationalism on the idea of nation. Then it assumes that a cosmopolitan is a traveller, elitist because multilingual, and without a fixed “patrie”, while the national is more concrete, fixed identity, monolingual. The idea of nation, however, can be cosmopolitan, as the concept was during the French revolution.

The real problem is when the nation is understood as a fixed concept around one language, one culture, one country, exclusive of any other, and that it is an ideology in the service of, and policy of a state — the owner of legitimate violence over individuals. In many ways, the nation-state has been and still is a necessary political and social organisation. It has created modern democracies, justice, flourishing cultures. But if understood with concepts of the nineteenth century, it is doomed to fail in a globalized world.

We need to reinvent our nations, and replace the nation-state with a cosmopolitan state, which would live more peacefully in cross-cultural co-existence with other cosmopolitan states, and inside a European Union of cosmopolitan states. Monolingualism would no longer be the norm, and everyone should be taught several languages at school and have the chance to live in other countries during their life. In other words, what the nation-state did to populations, the cosmopolitan-state should now do.

Peter Wessel – Polyfonías

I went to a concert/poetry reading at the Danish house in Paris, the institution in charge of promoting Danish (not only but mainly) culture in France. Peter Wessel, a Danish born poet who lived in France, Spain, California, and who knows where else, was performing with Mark Solborg, a Danish/Argentinian composer, guitarist and musician, and Salvador Vidal, a Spanish clarinetist, percussionist. They recently won the second prize of the international art competition organised by the Spanish ministry of culture to mark the European year: They released a CD in 2008 entitled “Polyfonias”.

Peter Wessel
Peter Wessel

Peter Wessel creates his own poetry, as most poets do, but not the way most poets do. “Dentro de mí / viven cuatro personas, each / with their own voice,/ su propia / lengua,/ sa propre langue./ Hver med sit eget sprog / og sin egen stemme.” There are four poets inside Peter, four voices uttering words, in their own langue. Of course, the issue is immediately that one needs to understand and speak these four languages in order to hear the poet out. I have the chance to be born Danish, to have been raised in France, to have learnt Spanish at school and spent some times in Spain, and having studied in England. The four Peters travelling in one Wessel, spoke to me. I heard him out.

The musicians were not there for creating some easy listening background. They were actively involved in setting the atmosphere, underlying the music of the voices, creating a space between bass and high pitches, linking the four voices of the voice in a universal language, interrupting the polyfonias with a few re-conciliating solos.

The poetic experience is as much a philosophical consideration of the cosmopolitan mélange. As many solutions, as many problems. Peter says, the poet must embrace multiculturality and not defend “ethnic purity” of his language from foreign words. Still, the language in question is a “national language”, giving a feeling of identity, belonging to a tribe, uniform and indivisible. That is the conundrum of this mélange. If we take it as a multi-something mélange, it is a compartmented mélange, but is it really a mélange. If we take it as a pluri-something mélange it is a mélange, but in the end, do the original elements subsist?

The cosmopolitan mélange? It must still find a way… Perhaps something of the individual identity. But the need for cohesion, for community? It comes naturally with the individual. But the need for an overall institution, guardian of the cohesion of a language? They’ll still be there, as long as some individuals feel the need for an overarching authority to regulate their lives. Others will feel free. Many have already started a new revolution. Many new poets are speaking in polyfonias of voices, not only with “foreign” voices, but with “vernacular foreign” voices. New expressions, based on “foreign” ideas, new modes of expressing, new ways of constructing words, sounds, feelings, adopted from “foreign” modes of life, already form a re-articulated “national” identity, a cosmopolitan nationality, connected with other cosmopolitan nationalities, into a worldly cosmopolitan cosmopolitanism.

Peter Wessel’s page on myspace.

Back in France: diversity and integration

I am back in France and have been staying for a month now. I left about 7-8 years ago and only came back a few days twice a year for season holidays to visit my parents. My contact with French politics was limited to following the news sporadically in the dailies, and I only kept ties with French culture by exploring eighteenth century literature and philosophy. I left partly because I felt ill-treated in France, partly because I felt I would not be able to achieve what I wanted to in a society I perceived as highly hierarchical, responding to authority, but yet constantly acting — in an immature way — against authority.

Coming back was a big shock. Things are even worse and more pronounced, I think than when I left. Or is it just because being in France I am also following the news through the radio and television? What I perceive is a society in crisis. Not only the recession and the economic crisis, which is now even worsened by the global financial crash, but also the whole society and its identity.

I read in the serious and trustworthy Le Monde about how the French police is perusing at a European conference about its solid techniques of repression and anti-riot tactics for the suburbs. The European neighbours applauded politely but off the records wondered about the necessity and efficiency of this kind of violence. Two days later a video was shown in the French media of policemen beating a young inhabitant of these suburbs who appears defenceless, and allegedly was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. A few days later, during a friendly football match between France and Tunisia, the French national anthem La Marseillaise was booed and whistled by supporters. Great demonstration of paternal protest ensued from the powers-that-be about these “imbeciles” who should “show respect to the national anthem and the players”; huge political tempest in a football glass.

The issue is that so many of these Frenchmen feel at odds with the French identity as displayed in mainstream media and by the authorities.

An excellent documentary “9-3 mémoire d’un territoire” (“9-3 memory of a territory”) investigates one of these “suburban area” that has so often been shown in the media as violence zone, one of these areas where two years ago rampage and riots occurred. The immigration from all the countries have accumulated there over a century. From the first Spanish and Italian workers brought to die in these poisonous and polluted death-factories established around Paris, to the North African and African ones brought to reconstruct France after World War II, parked in the sixties and seventies in the cheapest possible buildings, to the more recent Africans and inhabitants from former colonies lured into employment. Today this zone is disaffected by public authority, no school or any public infrastructure can be built on a polluted and poisonous ground, the youth is unemployed and rejected from the French education system, which only reproduce the same elite trained to pass special exams in the grandes écoles.

Rachida Dati by Benjamin Lemaire
Rachida Dati by Benjamin Lemaire
Rama Yade, by Marie-Lan Nguyen
Rama Yade, by Marie-Lan Nguyen

Le Monde was also presenting a series of investigations about integration in politics entitled “when a French Obama?”: in the French Parliament only 1MP out of 577 is black! 4 out of 343 senators are of Maghreb descent. 2000 out of 520,000 town-hall counsellors are representing diversity. In the government though, Rachida Dati, Rama Yade and Fadela Amara represent diversity. However, they seem to miss the point. Barack Obama is not a candidate for a minority. He is bot a black candidate to represent the African-American. In my view, he would not even be able to run for the presidency if he was. He is so successful because he has always held a speech about unity. He is a cosmopolitan candidate with multiple identities, in which everyone can recognise one’s own. This candidate was only possible in a country were, firstly, minorities could be recognise and gain access to higher education, social positions and political representations, and, secondly, multiethnicity and multiculturalism was so widespread that a new model of commonality and unity had to be imagined.

So is it really so hard to understand why some football supporters boo the Marseillaise? Is it really the appropriate response to display a paternalistic faked anger and indignation at the reality of a failed model of French integration? To show this withdrawal to nationalist symbols, which do not mean anything to anyone any more? These statesmen are hanging to symbols from the nineteenth century, as if our society was still living the glorious days of the coming industrial age, and necessitated a social cohesion based on a strong and rigorously monolithic national mass culture. On the other hand, people reject these symbols for this very same reason.

As if the “nation” ever meant a uni-dimensional view of culture. As if the Marseillaise was the anthem of a nationalistic and patriotic emotion that only the far-right and the conservatives had the courage to display publicly.

It seems to me that it is the whole French conception of the nation-state that needs to be dramatically re-investigated and thought anew. The nation is a common denominator for diversity, originally. In the early days of the French revolution it was the common concept to gather all free men as opposed to tyrants. By the same token, the patrie was this territory on which men were free and participating to public decisions. Seen this way, there is nothing “wrong” in being a nationalist or a patriot. It also allows a more open conception of society and identity. And after all it is only later that the concept of nation and patrie became “French”, or for that matter “British” or “German” etc: in the late eighteenth century in the history of ideas, and in the late nineteenth century for the deep roots in society.

This change of paradigm may sound aloof from realities. It is not. It matters because we enter progressively a change to a creative economy, in which growth is produced by the “creative industries”. And according to some social and economic theories, they can only thrive in towns and regions were tolerance, talent, and technology are encouraged. This means that a lot of money must be invested in the development of research and higher education, and that different education models than the one of the industrial age must be fostered. The goal is not to produce communicative elements in the society that must perform repetitive and des-individualised tasks such as writing “to whom it may concern” letters, but to produce individuals capable of functioning in opened and diverse societies, creative and talented, able to think for themselves rather than repeat what a rigid society needs them to repeat.

France is not on this path. Of course, some grandes écoles are breaching the taboo of “affirmative action” by recruiting young from these ethnically diverse suburbs. But it is a drop in the ocean. There are less PhD dissertations completed in France than in the UK and Germany. Worse, the rates are dropping while they are soaring in these countries. Budgets for research are not up to the levels they should be. France is not investing in the future. On top of this, elected officials are still functioning in the rhetoric of a Third Republic France with grandiose ideas of the French identity, values and symbols.

There is a need for a cosmopolitan state. This cosmopolitan state would reinterpret these national values and symbols, back to their pre-industrial liberal roots, in order to foster the creative economy. At the same time, there is a need to change the mentality that everyone should expect the state or public authorities to do everything. There is a need for more individualistic energy and initiatives. It is also the role of education to teach people not to wait for authority to regulate problems. This does not mean a minimalistic state, it means a responsible and mature population that does not just strike for any problem but efficiently communicate. It means a society based on more egalitarian principles. It means an education that values what people can accomplish according to their capacities. It means a society that respect human beings for what they can do and give the opportunity to accomplish their potential, instead of solely looking at what grande école one studied at and what hierarchical rank one occupies. Only a tolerant and flat based social model with an opened identity can flourish. This means that France must reinvent herself, and this path is best traced through re-investing in her revolutionary roots.

Scandinavian literary weekend

This weekend was under the sign of cosmopolitan literature.

First of all, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio received the Nobel Prize in literature: ‘author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.’ This was the occasion for me to deepen my acquaintance with Le Clézio’s works. I started reading his first novel, Le Procès-Verbal, for which he obtained at the age of 23 the Renaudot Prize — a prestigious French literary prize, awarded by journalists and critiques.

In Paris, where I currently resides, is organised yearly a literary event called ‘Lire en fête’ or ‘Party for reading’. This was the occasion to attend to two events with a Danish and a Swedish writer, very different the one from the other.

Jan Sonnergård, born 1963, became famous in Denmark with the publication of a short novels collection entitled Radiator published in 1997, to which succeded Sidste Søndag i Oktober (last Sunday in October) in 2000, and Jeg er stadig bange for Caspar Michael Petersen (I am still afraid of Caspar Michael Petersen), 2003. The name ‘Radiator’ was chosen because one of his literature professor declared that it was not possible to imagine ever using this word in a novel. This trilogy describes three classes of people in their meaningless existence in Denmark during the nineties. The language is extremely provoking, as the title ‘Radiator’ was meant to be. The first short novel Jan read, from Radiator, is written in a language close to a techno beat, and was uttered just as fast by a reader wearing an agressive blue and red Spiderman shirt. A group of young underprivileged have decided it was ‘payback time’ as they are going to loot a discount supermarket of its best products, and walk a rampage tour in an aggressive and nihilist cynicism, attacking anyone on the way. Another one told the story of a middle-class couple, leaving the most hypocritical life in their knowledge of the wife’s affairs with other men. The last one, told the story of a young drug addict from the upper class. These short-novels represent for me exactly the Copenhagen I experienced during my years 2001-2006, as I read his short-novels at this time, and as I was experiencing a different kind of life in Copenhagen.

Jan read three short novels, cut with jazz music interpreted by a trio tenor sax, bass, guitar led by the Danish saxophonist Martin Jacobsen. They were soothing the harsh tone of Jan’s stories, perhaps to remind of the higher value, the ideal of perfection that humankind is also capable of aspiring to in its unquenchable thirst for eternity.

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, born 1978 in Sweden, is a writer of Tunisian descent who explores the relation of language and power, and questions identity through language-plays in his two novels. He was in Paris to present and talk about his last novel recently translated into French. French was for him a ‘family language’, to which he declares having a vocabulary related to those things. Still, he displayed a good command of the language and was able to introduce to the audience a very vivid understanding of his world views in the novel Montecore-En unik tiger (Montecore: a unique Tiger), which won the Swedish P O Enquist literary Prize in 2006. It is not possible to translate such a book, and especially in French, since French is part of the book in Swedish. In the French translation, Lucile Clauss and Max Stadler decided to imagine a different character than the Swedish one, more accessible to French readers, by transforming him into a Tunisian man whose use of French is transformed into a reverence to what is perceived as high culture, and hence using formal language.

It is possible to read an interesting Chat in Le Monde with Jonas, in which he explains his relation to language and identity.

I have thought a lot on identity, language, globalisation and cosmopolitanism this weekend, from a literary perspective. Every language is tightly related to a country, or a society more specifically, and at the same time, it is completely autonomous of it. Jan used today’s street language to describe in the same violent and aggressive way some of today’s capitalist conditions. The focus is very tight, and the limits set to today’s Copenhagen. How to translate such conditions and languages? In French the academy is still impregnating minds with an idea of extreme reverence to French. To the point that in such a way, French is a dead language. French writers are also respecting the language very much. Jonas is inventing expressions creating verbs from words, imagining a new language to stick to a character who is a writer born in Sweden, but from a Tunisian father speaking French, and of course globe trotter in the world where English is the new lingua franca.

Language seems to be the country for Le Clézio, in all his travels, and also for Jonas, who is extending the limits of language beyond the borders. Jan, in a different way, limits even more the language to fake internal limits, in order to better denounce them in a violent super-realism. Still, it is very difficult to find proper ways to communicate such new ways, since translations work inside the nationalist paradigm, and intend to interpret for a supposed “national” audience, pieces of work which are transnational, supranationa, or infranational. The solution would be the creation of a succesful literary theory to transcend these problems. A cosmopolitan literary theory?

The state of the Iranian state

Ghostvillage in Kurdistan/Iran 2006
Ghostvillage in Kurdistan/Iran 2006

My Armenian Iranian friends tell me a lot about the state of the Iranian state — or the lack thereof. I was surprised to hear that there are no taxes in Iran, neither direct or indirect. Sounds like paradise for neo-liberals — besides the absence of liberal rights. And in return for the 0% tax rate, citizens are entitled to zero service. No social security, no social benefit, no retirement fund, no health care, nothing. All is dealt with a little hustling and help from the friends.

So where does the state gets its money from if not from tax revenues one may ask? Well, the state gets the money from state-owned companies in the industrial sector extracting oil, minerals — especially uranium — or in the primary sector. Basically the state does not care a monkey’s about the economy and how people are doing with business. What the government is interested in is what is in people’s minds and how to control it. The economy is left entirely to the private sector.

Before 1979, the situation was not so bad for Armenians and other minorities. It is only since the revolution that the new authority installed a one way type of thought and educated the people into believing in these types of dichotomies: faithful/unfaithful Muslim/non-Muslim, friend/enemy, us/them. Of course the average Joe (or in that case the average Hossein) just follows the movement and gets full of hatred without understanding much why. It is a shame I am told, since Iranians are naturally very hospitable and polite people. Not anymore since the 1979 revolution. Only educated and intelligent people are able to distance themselves from the social pressure imposed. Of course they all fly from the country as soon as possible, unfortunately. There is thus an amazing brain-drain from the country. In the long run, it will only be a piece of land inhabited by uneducated peasants, led by self-‘educated’ theologian fanatics.

Todorov: La conquête de l’Amérique, La question de l’autre

La conquête de l'Amérique
Todorov: La conquête de l'Amérique

Todorov, Tzvetan. La conquête de l’Amérique : la question de l’autre. Paris: Seuil, 1982.

In this book, Tzvetan Todorov, renowned Franco-Bulgarian writer and director of research at the Centre National de Recherches (CNRS) in Paris, investigates the Spanish conquest of Central America (the Caribbean and Mexico) during the sixteenth century. His research topic is the perception of the ‘Indians’ by the Spaniards. What Todorov wants to investigate is ‘how to behave towards the other?’ The Spanish conquest, which is responsible of the death of 40-70 million people, is a good example of behaviour in front of otherness, since 1492 marks the date ‘our’ medieval minds enter modernity through the discovery of a new world. How did Europeans behave towards people who may have seemed to be from a different planet? Todorov sketches different types of behaviour, based on historical actors of the conquest.

Todorov sums up his study of various historical writings with his own ‘Typologies of relationships with others’, which constitutes an axis of research of the different levels on which behaviours towards otherness is based:
1. Axiologic plan: value judgement (good/bad, love/hate).
2. Praxeologic plan: closeness or foreignness (identification/ignorance, assimilation/rejection)
3. Epistemic plan: acknowledgement or indifference.

On these levels, Todorov studied the following historical figures:

Cristobal Colon
Cristobal Colón

Colombus: no identification, no knowledge, negative attitude. Christopher Colombus was primarily moved by his fanatic religious faith. He did not want to discover a new route to the Indies for his own glory, for gold, nor for the Queen of Spain. What motivated him was the celebration of God’s glory. Indians were just as the lands newly discovered, a blank sheet ready to be written upon by the Spaniards for their own benefit. He painted an idyllic portrait of the Indians upon his arrival, based on his own fantasies more than reality: beautiful people in the inside on the outside, good-hearted and kind, generous and indifferent to money, but cowards and fragile — easy to conquer. He wants Indians to be like him, and in that he is a naive assimilationist. His project is to Christianise the Indians, and in that he sees things the way he pleases by observing that the Indians already bare Christian characteristics. In doing so, Colombus becomes a pro-slaver and from the principle of Christian equality he unconsciously considers Indians to be inferior in order to be exploited materially and colonised spiritually. The propagation of faith and the submission to slavery are two sides of the same coin for Colombus. Even outside this project, Indians are considered as innate objects for his own ‘ethnological’ studies: he denies them to possess individual will. For Todorov thus, ‘Colombus discovered America, not the Americans’ (p. 54).

Bartolome de las Casas
Bartolome de las Casas

Las Casas: no knowledge, love for ‘Indians.’ Las Casas was touched by the massacres committed towards the ‘Indians’ and decided to attempt at protecting them. He did not however developed a great knowledge of them nor did he learn their language. He even attempted to justify the human sacrifices they were committing through arguing about ‘natural reason’ and that it is their way to adore God, by giving the greatest sacrifice of all: human life. According to Las Casas, thus there is a universal love of God, but all religious expressions of this love are culturally specific, and as such relative. As a consequence, Christianity is not the only nor the best way to God. Barbarism is a relative notion as well. One is always a barbarian to others, and vice versa as long as one does not recognise the language being spoken. Whereas for some the Christian principle of the equality of men ensues the assimilation of ‘Indians’ because they are similar to us, Las Casas deduces the perspectivism of it. Las Casas’ political solution to the ‘Indians’ is to maintain previous states with their Kings and governors, with catholic preaches but without the military, and if the Kings express this wish, to establish a sort of federation presided by the King of Spain. They must be given their original freedom back and be reinstated in their sovereignty.

Vasco de Quiroga
Vasco de Quiroga

Vasco de Quirioga: no knowledge of ‘Indians’ and no identification, but a positive attitude. For him, Spaniards are a declining culture, whereas Indians constitute a rising civilisation in history. However, they are not perfect and must be worked upon. Instead of asking kings, Vasco de Quirioga acts directly upon Indians, and is inspired in this by Thomas Moore’s Utopia. He organised two utopian villages around Mexico.  He is an assimilationist.

Gonzalo Guerrero
Gonzalo Guerrero

Gonzalo Guerrero: After a shipwreck, he was the one of the survivors who reached the Mexican shores in 1511. He was taken by the Indians and sold as a slave. He learned the language and managed to acquire a high social status by teaching war, and winning quite a few of them. He married a woman from the nobility and painted himself in the manner of the Indians, let his hair grow and pierced his ears. Having established his life with the Indians, he transformed himself into a complete identification. He even fought against the Spaniards during which battle he lost his life.

Hernán Cortés

Cortés: great knowledge, negative attitude. Cortés wants primarily to understand, and in that he differs from other conquistadores in that he has a historical and political consciousness of his actions. In that, his first difficulty is to find an interpreter. During one conquest, a woman is given to the Spaniards, named Malintzin — the frequent name given being La Malinche. Her talent for languages places her as interpreter to Cortés, and also her lover from whom he will have a kid, one of the first mixed child. He will use all the information gathered to his advantage in conquering the Indians. He will have a deep understanding of the Indians’ use of signs and exploit them to his advantage in order to inspire fear and appear as a hero. The Indians would even ask Cortés to act on their favour to fight their own enemies. Cortés’ principal preoccupation is what the Indians will interpret from his actions and speeches. The message he wants to give is strategically planned — it is an information warfare, one could say. He wants to control all details of communication, and even regarding the image of his army. Indian tells confirms the success of Cortés’ communication warfare: the Aztec King, Moctezuma, believed that Cortés was the return of Quetzalcoatl to take his empire. This communication warfare will extend beyond Cortés in the imposition by the Spaniards of Nahuatl as the official Mexican language at first, and then the Hispanic of the country through the study of local languages, and the teaching of Spanish. The first Grammar book of a European language would be produce at that time: Spanish grammar by Antonio de Nebrija who wrote in his introduction: ‘… siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio…’

La Malinche
La Malinche

La Malinche: complete identification with the Spaniards and assimilation to their culture. Worked as a translator to Cortés and a bridge between the two cultures. As such she acquired a high status in the Indian collective mind. She exemplifies mixture, melting rather than purity. She studies Spanish culture in order to also better understand her own — even if it is to destroy it. She became essential to Cortés’ business, and also acquired a particular place in Indians’ myths, which is testified by all the cartoons drawn of her in a central place in between Indians and Spaniards.

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca

Cabeza de Vaca: This conquistador was forced to live with the Indians after a shipwreck. In order to survive he practised two professions: trade, and shaman or doctor. In doing so he imitates the local healers, and adds some catholic prayers. He adopts their trades, customs, clothing, but never forgets his identity. As soon as he found his way, he took the first ship back to Spain, and ‘civilisation.’ He helds the Indians with great esteem and does not want to do them harm. The evangelisation must be conducted without violence. He acquires a precise knowledge of their way of life, in order to act upon them for their conversion, and also to pass this knowledge to other conquistadors who will use it to sumbit them. His identification is thus deep but without implication. He wrote Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan a great historical monument on Mayas’ past, but he also decided the autodafe of all Mayan books. There is however no contradiction as he was an assimilationist in Yucatan and burned books, and wrote this historical book in Spain as a scholar in order to defend himself of his acts in a court of law.

Durán Codex
Durán Codex

Durán: Also known as the ‘Durán Codex,’ The History of the Indies of New Spain was published c. 1581. Durán also wrote Book of the Gods and Rites (1574-1576), and Ancient Calendar, (c. 1579). He gathered a great and deep knowledge of the Indians for the purpose of imposing Catholic religion and erase all traces of pagan rites. ‘Know thy enemy’ seems to be his motto. In this quest he is radical in the elimination of all idolatry: confession of the dreams, prevention of religious syncretism, destruction of all related monuments. All ancient customs must disappear. However, Durán tries to explain the Mexican realities to the Europeans through analogies and comparisons. Some Mexican religious customs are compared to the Christian ones. In Durán’s mind this comparison serves to argue that the Indians are indeed Christians. The Aztec are thus a lost tribe of Israel. So this religious syncretism that he tries so hard to eradicate, he practices it with his gaze upon the Indians. He shares the Indian way of life in order to understand them, he understands both cultures, and as such, his work is enlightening. Throughout his books he clearly separates the Aztec point of view from his own, but at some point he is losing this separation and claims the point of view of the historian telling the tale of heroes and the glory of Mexico. In other words, he loses these two identities (Spanish and Aztec) and creates the very first new Mexican identity. With La Malinche he is one of the first Mexicans.


Sahagun: Franciscan ‘linguist’, not part of the aristocracy or high ranked religious — who dispised having to lower themselves to learning Indian culture and language, so he learned the language — Nahuatl — and learned to live together with the ‘indians.’ He was professor of Latin grammar in the Franciscan college of Tlatelolco dedicated to forming the Mexican elite from the former nobility. In order to propagate better Christianism he projected to write the history of the ancient Mexican religion. His Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España would occupy him for forty years. However, his project was also dedicated to develop knowledge of and preserve the Nahuatl culture. In order to do so, he chose to report faithfully the testimonies he collected with a translation, instead of replacing them by it.This translation constitutes more an interpretation
from the original text. His interventions in the text are not only rare, but clearly separated from the rest. They are characterised by an intention to avoid moral judgements and attempt to explain from other known civilisations such as Ancient Rome. Obviously, however, the knowledge is organised in a European way through answers to a European-made questionnaire. Sahagun saw the terrible consequences of the replacement of the Aztec civilisation by the Spaniards. He dreamt of the creation of an ideal state that would be Mexican and Christian — a city of God.

From Historia General de las cosas de Nueva España

Todorov categorises Sahagun in his ‘typology of relationships to otherness’ as a believer of the Christian doctrine of equality between men. However, even if he learns the language and the culture of the ‘Indians,’ he maintains his identity, and even idealise the ‘Indians.’ What is interesting in his work for Todorov, is the massive knowledge that he accumulated without perpetrating any qualitative judgement. His work can be qualified as ‘ethnography’ as he is just collecting information without interpretation, and making only a timid comparison with Ancient Rome, but without being comparative. For him, cultures cannot be hybrid nor should they be; cultures stay in their own rights untouched. Nonetheless, Todorov sees there the embryo to any future dialogue between civilisations that we today experience.

Todorov’s book is highly recommandable for an introduction to reflexion on our behaviour towards other people in early modernity. In our world of reflexiv modernity, these have changed very much. The question of identity is not fixed but flexible, the question of hybridisation is not an impossible thought but a daily reality. This is the heart of all problems for cosmopolitan theory: how to form universal standards if all standards are by definition locally situated? Even if one is fluent in two or three or more cultures, it cannot possibly encompass all of them to grasp some commonality or acceptable form of universality for all. The debate is currently set on human rights as the smallest common denominator, but even they are Western-based. Of course, human rights are a good thing, but they mean a Western imposition nonetheless, even if for the greater good.’ Are ‘we’ ready to accept other forms of imposition on ‘our’ mentality if they are potentially ‘good’ for humankind? After all, one should reflect upon the fact that in all our exchanges with ‘foreigners’ we are acting in a historical manner, even if playing a tiny part as a tourist.

Armenian Iranian refugees in Vienna

In Vienna I have been living in a student hall of residence for two years. Not all rooms are rented to students. Some are also rented to Iranian refugees of Armenian decent — the most important Christian minority in Iran. The manager of the house is Armenian himself. But apparently there is no philanthropy there, these refugees even have to pay a higher price than we do. They are a non-Muslim minority in Iran, they speak Armenian, and it is for them incredibly difficult to live there because of social and economical discriminations, not to mention the very strict Shi’a-Muslim way of life that they must follow. They all go to the USA, and have been doing so for decades now, with the blessing of the Iranian authorities of course.

Until now I have been caught up in my studies and my work and have not gotten time to exchange much with any of them. I have seen them coming and going, some rather swiftly, others waiting longer. However I am on holidays now and all the students are gone, being replaced by tourists. I am living in one room only with a couple of other floor mates, and two rooms occupied by four Armenians, two girls and two guys. They are very kind and open people and as we are often in the kitchen together we are talking, although their English is not always too good yet (but mine is not that perfect either). We form a little community by our immediate proximity and common use of the kitchen. I began to think then in terms of international relations, and wondered about the application of different frames of thinking. The kitchen is then the geopolitical zone of interaction, we have a common interest in keeping it clean and functional for the benefit of all. It is also the place where we exchange by using it: communicating, cooking, observing each others.

I am thus learning something about a group of peoples I did not even know existed. I am interrogating them a lot about Iran, life conditions there, the refugee process etc. I hope they do not see me as a policeman of some kind. Armenian Iranians mostly live in Tehran. But then again most Iranians do: 15 million people inhabit this over-polluted city! Forget everything about Beijing. The smog of pollution is so dense there you need to decrease your speed by half when you are walking and use a GPS.  I find it very worrying this automatic granting of asylum to them. Of course it is much better for them, they are off to a country that will allow them to reach their capabilities fully, and where they will not suffer from discriminations and be imposed certain restricting rules in their daily life. But the country is also slowly emptying itself of this age-old minority. It is a kind of asylum ethnic cleansing. Dreadful. And there is no hope for change. Even if the Muslim youth is despising the regime and aspire to more liberal rules and relaxed social , they too are quitting the sinking boat to live a more fulfilling life abroad. So only people without resource, members of the establishment, or sympathetic elite stay in the country.

One of the guys I am discussing with the most, Arbi (who with his shaved head looks like Agassi, another American of Armenian Iranian descent), tells me that they all go to the USA rather than Europe because they already have a community and relatives there, and that they can. It is really a slow massive population displacement in a way — a community is being displaced from one location to another. I cannot help but think about the sadness of this process. Obviously it is a great gesture on the part of the USA to accept all these refugees.

They all go to California, mainly because of the weather and the already established community. They have nothing to do here in Vienna all day but to wait for the process to be processed. At some point they are simply bored — no money, no job, all the sightseeing done, nothing left to do. Apparently the process takes about two years, and I am told that the real difficulties first arrive in the USA as they have to run for about a month from one bureaucracy to the other to get all their papers and permits in order. Arbi, has a degree in bio-chemistry that he will have to pass again. But he says it does not matter, nothing of all the troubles he is going through by moving to a new country, filling tons of applications, red tapes, passing the same exams again, nothing is worse than the troubles they suffer by staying in Iran.

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