Andreas Broeckmann on Thu, 24 Jun 1999 20:16:48 +0100

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Re: Syndicate: moral responsibility

dear edi, dear syndicalists,

i'm both surprised and not that the discussion about 'moral responsibility'
would end so soon, after a short weekend flare-up. but then this is maybe a
discussion that you can hardly hold in the open with so many open wounds
around, and given the real difficulty to understand the amount of
responsibility and/or guilt that different people can, should, will feel.

i obviously recognised what inke said about the german story. talk about
historical guilt, and everybody who knows you bear a german passport will
somehow twitch. well, not everybody. but what does moral responsibility,
let alone collective guilt, mean in relation to something that happened
long before i was born? what constitutes the collectivity that, according
to ken wark, i have to accept as a prerequisite of a shared identity? there
were people who were handing in their (british) passports in order to
reject the collective that was waging, in their eyes, an unjust war that
they did not want to be party to. i can't help but see this as a futile,
misplaced gesture which strengthens rather than weakens the regime of
national identity.

michael ignatieff has recently made a passionate plea for a culture of
civic humanism in which, for ethical reasons, similarity and equality are
posited as the basis of people's shared existence on this planet. 'It has
become common to believe that we create our identities as much as we
inherit them, that belonging is elective rather than tribal, conscious
rather than unconscious, chosen rather than determined. Even though we
cannot choose the circumstances of our birth, we can choose which of these
elements of our fate we make our defining inheritance. Artists like Joyce
have helped to think of our identities as artistic creations and have urged
us to believe that we too can fly free from the nets of nationality,
religion, and language.' (ignatieff 1999, p.167)

how much room for manoeuvre is there in the trenches of collective guilt?
in the post-war west germany that i grew up in, there was little room,
which in my case led to the curious situation that my personal history
painting was determined more by my father's innocent hitler youth stories
than by my maternal family's persecution - the latter being less compatible
with the dominant (patriarchal?) german history lesson formulas. when i
later lived in amsterdam, the rediscovery of my mother's history coincided
with observations of the collective fabrication of history in the
netherlands, where awareness of, e.g., the colonial past, the wealth based
on slave trade, and rather usual collaboration with the nazis was only
slowly gaining ground from the structured, wide-spread, collective denial.
i think i first had these thoughts in the resistance museum in amsterdam
which resembled too much the history museums in young nations that have to
construct two, three thousand years of history, pieced together on flimsy

i don't want to sound condescending, quite the opposite. i became aware how
far societies will go in the construction of their history and identity,
and it always made me wonder that in the last decades the germans had no
other role to play than the scape-goats of the 20th century. but i guess
that any kind of humble identity is probably OK, especially for large and
potentially powerful countries. you see the opposite in britain.

how do you deal with the fact that the whole televisual world is watching
how in kosovo mass graves are being exhumed which were filled, and the
people killed, in the name of your country? (different from, but not
totally unlike Lidice or My Lai, or the parallel examples in belgian,
russian, french or japanese history) what do you do when your moral disgust
is in concrete conflict with your fear for your life? and how can one
expect an answer to such a question from somebody who was protecting their
own family's lives? how do we judge the cockroaches of this earth (beside
ourselves), the ones who lost their face in order to save their butt?

Sally Jane wrote:
>Feel as though I'm crawling out of the cracks in the floorboard like a
>cockroach. The carapace that saved me is a deadweight. Cockroaches are
>ignoble survivors that people walk on out of sheer disgust.
>As Kosovars crawl tortuously out of the hills, as Serbs just as "collabos"
>tortured in France the instant "victory" was proclaimed, the carapace is
>also a shield. Cockroaches are lowly survivors. Just like all those months
>ago that feel like centuries, I wish I had the white wings of Te Kotuku, the
>white heron winging through now summer skies. No shit. Instead of this black
>shiny carapace. You know the sound it makes when you step on it? The sound
>of a survivor cockroach going down? The sound of a breaking body? Mind a
>mess. Sorry.

if anything, for me last weekend's discussion shows that the question of
moral responsibility does not get us any further if it remains stuck in
questions of claim and counter-claim, blame and counter-blame. a more
intriguing question, and potential more constructive, is the one that edi
asks in his message:

>there is one thing
>i would really look for to have a  profoundly sincere answer (as much as
>possible), from my serbian friends (the  ones i know personally and others
>i don't). have you ever really considered  albanians living in Kosova as
>equal to you, deign to live the same life, to have the same rights,
>exercise the same freedom?

i would extrapolate from the situation in kosovo and claim that what needs
answering on a more general level is if we can live with difference in our
neighbourhood, whether we will defend a culturally muddied environment, and
whether we can create a culture of heterogeneity in which the differences
between people are cherished rather than taken as a source of segregation
and hate. i think that we have to be as slow as possible in answering this
question. i agree with edi that it might reach deeply into the real moral
responsibility that we carry as individuals, rather than the hollow and
grandiose claims of collective guilt that can only be countered with
equally empty gestures of remorse. (this is obviously about cultural whimps
like myself, not about the guys with the big guns who kill people.)

the crunch might lie in the fact that, in order to accept this difference,
we have to accept changing, becomig different, and teaching others the
value of this change. removing the fear for becoming other than who and
what we are now.

>this is the
>hardest matter on which we should focus now, start thinking practically how
>to  make the two live together without problems. of course big deal is on
>the  albanian side, and i can understand if one goes back and find only the
>ashes and some bones of his kids, you would hardly like to pretend that
>nothing happened. but the serbs too have to change a lot as well, and this
>change and the desire to live together with albanians of kosova can start
>only if they change the way they have always considered them; and i
>believe that this is a collective as well as individual moral

if art and culture will have a role in the moral and social reconstruction
of the whole of balkania, and in the continuing transformation of europe,
it will be based on the desire for change and the pleasure of difference,
of friction, of heterogeneity. i mean this in very concrete terms. respect
and curiosity can be the moral categories that drive this effort.

greetings from berlin,


------Syndicate mailinglist--------------------
 Syndicate network for media culture and media art
 information and archive:
 to unsubscribe, write to <>
 in the body of the msg: unsubscribe your@email.adress