Reflections on Anthropology of Europe (2016)

A few years ago, I taught a college class about European peoples and cultures. Here are some reflections on Europe that I wrote at the end of that course.

If we boil things down, this course shows us an image of Europe that is fundamentally about conflict, crisis, nationalism, and the heavy weight of ugly histories. The Europe we’ve seen this semester is a Europe in crisis. Even at times in agony. It suffices to recall that Europe is a place where a Turkish family’s house can get burned down by neo-Nazis, as in Solingen, Germany in May 1993. It’s a place where refugees drown by the boatload offshore, or where refugee camps can catch on fire, as on the Greek island of Lesbos this September 19, sending more than 3,000 refugees fleeting. It’s a place where a French citizen can take a Kosher supermarket hostage on behalf of the Islamic State and then get killed by the riot police, as Amedy Coulibaly did almost two years ago, and then be construed by right-wing xenophobic politicians as hard evidence of an implacable clash of civilizations between “Islamic fundamentalism” and the (fantasized) West. It’s a place where pension payments to the elderly can get slashed to satisfy foreign lenders, and also a place where people can die while waiting months for socialized medicine to give them heart surgery. Austerity policies, like socialist ones, can kill. Europe is a place where whole worlds have been burned down and slaughtered only to be rebuilt and reborn, like my grandfather’s childhood apartment in Berlin, which, sometime after his family fled or died in fled Nazi Germany, was converted into a parking lot.

In sum, crisis and conflict are the essence here, not the accident; they’re the shape of the historical frame, not an exception or ornament. If you picture European history since 1945 as a sea, this one has rarely been still. As you recall, we started out class by thinking about nationalism and the nation. Again, if you learn one thing from this class, it is that the nation is by definition a conflict zone. The history of nations in Europe, even in a relatively limited historical scope as the period since 1945, demonstrates that crisis is not new.

Already in 1947 in Greece, or earlier in the 1930s in Spain, European countries were divided by civil war. And I’ve learned from reading your papers that many members of our class tend to idealize the nation as a unified thing. But again: nations are never unified things. Nations are ongoing conflicts. Struggles. When people pretend that the nation is unified, you have to take that with a grain of salt. It may be an aspiration. It may be a fantasy. It may be propaganda, as in Queen Frederica’s orphanages. In any case, it has never been true that any nation is altogether united, because it is just not actually possible for a mass of millions of people to share a single “soul.” There is only ever an unsteady balance between partial unity and disunity; disunity is a constant. In that sense, civil wars — like the ones in Greece and Spain — are not moments where nations break down. They are merely moments where the conflicts at the heart of a nation can no longer be hidden or postponed.

This gets us to the question of the European Union, whose destiny, of course, is impossible to foresee. It’s worth recalling that a large part of the European Union’s project was to prevent war. The 1992 Maastricht treaty that created the European Union, for instance, began by “recalling the historic importance of the ending of the division of the European continent and the need to create firm bases for the construction of the future Europe,” and stated that its aim was “to promote peace, security and progress in Europe and in the world.” By creating a new type of European citizenship and trying to foster “social integration,” the aim was to decrease malign nationalism. Yet malign (if not malignant) nationalism has instead prospered in the 25 years since Maastricht.

Part of the aim of our course, then, has been to arm you with some critical skills for thinking about nationalism and the nation. Again, Ernest Renan was largely right when he said what a nation was not. A nation is not simply a territory, a race, a language, or a religion. One has to qualify Renan’s view: of course many nations are strongly associated with all these things, which is why we can associate the nation of England with the English language, the Anglican church, and some stereotypes about racial whiteness. Danforth and Van Boeschoten’s quip is worth recalling here: “Nations, in other words, are large, politicized ethnic groups that exercise, or hope to exercise, state sovereignty over a specific territory” (2012:35). We can acknowledge that nations do have certain social, linguistic, “ethnic,” religious and territorial roots. But there is no such thing as the soul of a nation. All nations are divided to one degree or another; no nation is entirely ethnically, linguistically, or religiously pure.

So this raises a question: Why do people think nations are pure if they are actually impure? Why do they seem to be unified if they are actually disunified? Here we can go back to the Queen of England’s Christmas Speech, with its curious blend of kitschy family harmony, official Christendom, and displays of military force. Nations have narrators. People end up believing in the existence of nations because they are swayed by these narrators – they may even identify strongly with them. People imagine that they belong to unified nations because they are in the sway of these national stories.

The problem is, national narrators are seldom entirely trustworthy. Hopefully in class you’ve learned to ask yourself some critical questions about them: What kind of person gets represented in this image of the nation? And who’s getting left out? Whose interests does the national narrator serve? Whose interests do they betray? If they portray the nation as being unified in opposition to some foreign adversary, is the adversary really foreign? Or is it actually a part of the nation that is getting falsely pushed outside and then treated as foreign, as with the large group of Muslim citizens of the French Republic, or the Greek citizens ostracized for their Macedonian roots?

Indeed, national narrators often convey their images of unity through antagonism against foreigners. But let’s be clear: the conflicts and crises that afflict Europe today are substantially internal to Europe, not strictly imposed from abroad. We could make a list of different kinds of conflicts in Europe:

  • Economic conflicts: debt, economic growth, expensive social programs
  • Conflicts over ethnic otherness: xenophobia, social marginality, integration of immigrants, specific antagonisms towards North Africans, Turks, Muslims, sub-Saharan Africans, not to mention Gypsies, Jews, Eastern Europeans, and so on.
  • Conflicts of identity (which are inseparable from conflicts over ethnic others: who is British in a multiracial Britain?)
  • Crises of social reproduction (can one get a job? a college degree? who will do childcare? how will death be recognized, unrecognized, collectively processed?)
  • Conflicts of order and disorder (how will unruly populations be policed, whether migrants or striking workers?)
  • Conflicts of political respectability (what will be the role of neofascists in Europe?)
  • Conflicts of heritage: what will be the role of the past, when the past is irredeemable? when the past is fascist? when the past is full of unmarked graves? Can bad pasts be forgotten or transcended? Or, as Look Who’s Back suggests, is the potential for fascism alive and well in Europe today? What is the role of monarchy in a democracy? Is it a sign of oppression or merely a new national brand?

In our class, we’ve also looked at different ways that conflicts and crises get handled. They can get forgotten, as the Greek civil war has been by many. They can erupt into street conflicts, like with the British coal miners in the 1980s. They can get channeled in somewhat irrational directions, like political abandonment and precarity got channeled into Brexit. They can elicit satire, as with Black Mirror and its commentary on the alienation of technological progress, or with the representation of Hitler returned to the streets of Berlin in a moment of increasing hostility towards immigrants. Crises can shift history away from the “progressive” future that the European Union was supposed to facilitate, becoming moments of historical reaction. We can start to ask ourselves: Is conflict ever a ruse for something else. What gets concealed by a crisis?

We’ve also learned concepts that are useful for thinking about how people cope with crisis and live through it. Liminality is one way of dealing with crisis: you can leave your home in a fishing village in Ghana to become liminal in Italy, in hopes of getting better economic prospects. Precarious employment can be a way of surviving in a compromised world, even if it is one where traditional postwar forms of labor stability seem to have declined. I would even speculate that the concept of precarious employment will not be entirely irrelevant to your own generation’s experience as you enter the work world.

But in any event, if the course has a more philosophical moral, it must just be this: that crisis has become ordinary, that social and national conflict is inevitable, and that life is less about finding absolutely solid ground but rather is about navigating crisis, surviving conflict, and accepting that differences and even antagonisms are not going anywhere. Some might mourn the reality of this sort of unstable world. But I would say the opposite: conflict shows us that we are not trapped in a frozen order, and that history is still possible – indeed, is still unfolding before our eyes.