European imaginaries and cultural patrimonies

Corin Braga


Although a geographically small continent, Europe has fostered, over the past millennia, the emergence of an impressive number of languages, cultures and civilizations. This constitutes its richness and also its challenge: how should all these local, regional and national cultural identities be harmonized and integrated, without destroying, but rather conserving and enhancing them? The concept of an integrated Europe, especially after the traumatic experiences of the world wars, is indeed active in the conscious and unconscious collective mind of the European peoples. This explains the success of the original plan of the founders of the European Union and the on-going process of adhesion and enlargement with countries from the former communist bloc and of other provenance.

However, this common general expectation is, especially in the context of the worldwide economic, social, political and military crises of the recent years, challenged by the often implicit recommendation that each country and each community should find better solutions for itself. While such solutions could work for some problems and in specific cases, overall it appears that, within the global trend of the emergence of new economic, trade and financial powers (China, India, South America, Russian Federation), the real chance for Europe to remain a main world competitor is its interior integration. The main challenge for the European Union is to ensure irenic relations between its states and populations, to find the shared elements of their specific collective imaginaries and mentalities, to construct the architecture of a common European self-image in which diversity, acknowledged and assumed, becomes a factor not of dissension, but of cohesion and unity.

In order to comprehend Europe’s cultural, literary and arts dynamics, a central concept is that of “fractal identity” (see how this mathematical term, worked out by Benoit Mandelbrot, was adapted to cultural studies by I. P. Couliano and others). While Europe as a whole offers a general compact picture (especially when seen from outside the continent, by Asians, Africans, Americans, etc.), when seen from within, it begins to proliferate one main cultural pattern at different levels: global; by areas and zones (Mediterranean, the Balkans, Latin Countries, Anglo-Saxon Countries, Protestant Countries, Ex-Communist Countries, etc.); national (states); regional and local (federal communities, ethnic groups, religious minorities, etc.). The members of each of these layers have common features and characteristics, which give them similar profiles. While neighbouring communities from the same level might oppose each other, in order to ensure the impenetrability of their structures, at a higher layer it becomes evident that they compete exactly because they share similar configurations and goals. The relationships between groups, communities, nations, etc. evolve in a complex dialectics between multiplicity and unity, between conflict and transversal cooperation. This means that Europe is, at all levels, what Umberto Eco would call an opera aperta, a work in progress. The actual political and juridical division of Europe into national states is continually challenged by tendencies from the lower and higher layers, which often require different groupings.

These dynamics is all the more evident when observing collective imaginaries, which can act as a progressive factor, which imposes new directions and trends, or as a reactionary factor, which obstructs changes. Research on the European collective representations should secure the comprehension and assessment of these centripetal and centrifugal forces of a multi-layered, evolving Europe. It could provide the artisans of the integration process with a cognition instrument, allowing them to become sensitive to or aware of cultural differences and susceptibilities which could undermine the continental cohesion. These should be addressed properly, without any deleterious effects on the identity of the EU member countries, on their self-images and interests, because otherwise divergent and centrifugal opinions, movements, groups and parties are likely to emerge, rejecting the integration ideal as a massification process. How could this situation be prevented?

What should be acknowledged is that the global deposit, the main “container” of the European cultural identities is the material and spiritual patrimony, the tangible and intangible cultural heritage that Europe has inherited from its dynamic and convulsive history. The first thing to do is to outline a map of the spiritual profiles of the European communities, at all levels: local, regional, national, zonal and continental. Scientists from the domain of social sciences have already built such maps for material issues such as natural and mineral resources, agricultural and industrial exploitation, population and market resources, etc. Nevertheless, it has to be remembered that people live not only in a factual world, but also in a spiritual, cultural world, made of images, representations, worldviews, stereotypes, clichés, prejudices, etc. If we care about natural ecology, we should also care about the spiritual ecology of the collective psyche. In the same way in which scientists approach physical and social sciences according to the material domain each discipline represents, researchers in the humanities could analyse the political, geographical, historical, social, religious imaginaries that express themselves in the contemporary literature and arts.

The seminal concept in the investigation of the cultural, literary and artistic representations is “the imaginary” (the equivalent of the French term l’imaginaire), as opposed to the traditional concepts of “imagination” and “fantasy” (see Braga, “Imagination, imaginaire, imaginal. Three French Concepts for Defining Creative Fantasy”, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, vol. 6, no. 16, 2007, ISI indexed journal, The modern concept of “the imaginary” was founded in the mid-20th century, through the works of Gaston Bachelard, Henry Corbin, Gilbert Durand (Les structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire, Paris-Bruxelles-Montréal, Bordas, 1969) and other prominent philosophers. While “imagination” defines the human faculty of creating random mental images, with no correspondent in the outside reality, that is, false, chimerical representations, the French term imaginaire, “the imaginary”, designates the imaging or the imagining function of the psyche, its capacity to create new, creative representations. Limaginaire (treated grammatically as a noun) has two overlapping meanings. In the first instance, it designates the products of the imagination, the passive body of images and representations created by an individual or by the collective mind. As H. Védrine puts it, l’imaginaire is “the whole world of beliefs, ideas, myths, ideologies that pervade each individual and each civilization” (H. Védrine, Les grandes conceptions de l’imaginaire, Paris, Gallimard, 1990). In the second instance, l’imaginaire is seen, on a larger scale, as the dynamic human faculty of creating this complex system of images. For Claude-Gilbert Dubois, it is “the visible outcome of a psychic energy, which has its formal structures both at the level of individuals and of collectivities” (C.-G. Dubois, L’imaginaire de la Renaissance, Paris, PUF, 1985). For Joël Thomas, it is “a system, a dynamic function for organizing images, which gives them soundness and correlates them” (J. Thomas, Introduction aux méthodologies de l’imaginaire, Paris, Ellipses, 1998). For Jean-Jacques Wunenburger, it designates the “inner creative force of imagination” (J.-J. Wunenburger, L’imaginaire, Paris, PUF, 2003).

Humans relate to the outside world not only through senses and ideas, but also through images and representations. Their comprehension of the world and their ensuing reactions depend on these subjective images. As António Damásio has recently shown, the simple fact of telling stories (i.e. organizing our experience in narrative terms by means of brain maps) is one of the most elementary and archaic “obsessions of the brain”. Rather than a dimension at the margins of the material and physical order of the world (both visible and invisible), “the imaginary” is intrinsically intertwined with it, over-determining the way we feel, read and represent (through artistic,  literary, scientific, historical, religious or mythical discourses) both the reality enveloping us and the way we interact with it and transform it. In order to understand human behaviour, anthropologists have to tackle the complex system of representations that underlies mental activity.

As an anthropological concept, “the imaginary” pervades all human practices. It applies to a vast range of domains, from sociology and religion to literature and the arts. Social imaginaries comprise narratives, mythical events, historical characters, collective symbols which serve to make sense of history, to organise the cultural memory and to configure the future. Scholars such as Pierre Nora, Régis Debray, Paul Ricœur, Elémire Zolla, Eduardo Lourenço, José Gil, etc., have highlighted the psycho-sociological function of symbolical, narrative and iconic mediators. Lately, the concept has experienced important and interesting developments, especially in the English-speaking world. Following innovative works written in the fields of literary studies (Said) and political science (Anderson), it has become customary to refer to social and political imaginaries for analysing the institutionalization of modern societies. Charles Taylor defines “the social imaginaries” as follows: “By social imaginary, I mean something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking, rather, of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” (Modern Social Imaginaries, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2004, p. 23). Images of the self (autoimages) and of the other (heteroimages) (the “other” being conceived as an individual or as a collectivity), worldviews of nature, universe or God, representations of geography, history, society and culture literary and fine arts fantasy, theatre and cinema, music and dance, advertising and media, etc. are all products and instruments of the imagining function. Even the most common and current attitudes of everyday life bear the imprint of collective habits and representations.

Researchers also talk about malfunctions and pathologies (“dérives pathologiques”) of the collective imagination (J.-J. Wunenburger, Imaginaires du politique, Paris, Ellipses, 2001). When they are no longer spontaneous and creative, collective images become stereotypes and clichés. Guided by ready-made representations, people no longer react individually to social stimuli, but engage in induced irrational attitudes, which lead to prejudices and conflicts. A reflective society should know how to recognize and deconstruct such received opinions which allow for manipulation and control. “The imaginary” is a common patrimony that could, on the one hand, consolidate and enhance prejudices, clichés and behavioural inertias, and, on the other hand, reorient and transform recollections, expectations and hopes, projects and utopias. It is ambivalent: it can both prevent or put a stop to change and inspire or prompt new developments. It is important to explore this double aspect of the European social imaginaries within the frame of the effort to produce a Europhile public opinion and a European collective “narrative”.

Exploring collective representations is especially important in our times. Contemporary postmodern society is evolving into a “global village”, in which people from all over the world are provided, via media channels, with information on potentially every single event that takes place on Earth. Nevertheless, unlike in the traditional village, where the transmission of this information was direct, non-mediated, interpersonal, in the global village the information is indirect, mediated, transformed. The transnational advertising system, the worldwide movie distribution networks, newspapers and magazines, cable and satellite television, the Internet, itinerant fine arts exhibitions, the global diffusion of literary works, all these media no longer supply “perceptive” images of remote people and events, but only virtual images, processed in offices and studios. These images become liable to carry additional, subliminal messages, which may be exposed to ideological or commercial manipulation. Political campaigns and electronic wars, fashion and cultural popularity awards represent just a few trivial examples of the way in which received images influence our vision of reality.

The importance of imaginary representations in contemporary societies can hardly be underestimated. Let us take into consideration a few examples: ecology, historical myths, post-communism and post-colonialism. As regards the first example, the attitude towards the natural environment depends not only on positive data, but also on the imaginary representations. The debates over climatic change generate and are also influenced by their reflection in literature, art (especially film) and media. Catastrophic movies concerning global warming, the rise of the ocean level, the destruction of the atmosphere, changes in the rotation axe of our planet, collusion with a meteorite, pandemics, etc. seem to be more efficient when it comes to influencing official and public opinion than positive scientific data. Insofar as the second example is concerned, historical memoirs and myths, we can see their importance in the debates on the recognition of historical traumas (genocides, holocaust, Shoah, etc.), the competition between minorities, empire-related myths, etc. Finally, post-colonialism and post-communism are a complex reservoir of inherited mental schemas and imaginaries. Literature and arts provide not only the most effective insights into collective psychology, but also instruments for redirecting and educating people’s ways of perceiving, imagining and thinking.

While present in potentially every human activity and creation, collective schemes of imagination have a special formalised application in what we generally call “arts”. Starting from mythological and religious rites and performances, practically all modern arts, such as literature (epic poems and narrative), theatre and cinema (tragedy, comedy, drama), painting and sculpture, have their origin in the cult of the gods and the dead, as visual representations of the invisible and the supernatural. With the laicisation of the historical societies, these artefacts of human creativity lost their religious function and acquired an aesthetic function. However, they never lost their power of fascination, which goes beyond the pragmatic aspect of beauty and draws on collective numinous representations. Literature and arts have replaced the ancient cosmological myths of creation, the historical legends about heroes and heroical deeds, the narratives about the events and experiences of human life, the rites of passage for each category of age, the symbols and images for great themes and topics such as love, war, death, time, animals, geographical space, human society, individuality and human psyche.

Culture, literature, music, dance, fine arts, etc., provide the most complex and sophisticated picture of the collective identity. Cultural imaginaries express the relations between individuals and groups, their representations of the self and of the others, of the geographical and historical milieus, of the planet and the universe. The images of Europe, positive or negative, global or fragmented, define the conscious and unconscious attitudes and comportments, hopes and fears concerning the individual and common destiny of European peoples. A diagram of the literary and artistic representations of our continent provides a psychological diagnostic of the current tendencies and trends of our society. A knowledge database covering all the cultural dimensions of this immaterial inheritance will offer the instruments for a better understanding and a creative use of the mental schemes that rule mass psychology.

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