Museum Europe

an Exchange with Peter Lunenfeld

Geert Lovink and Peter Lunenfeld talk about Continents and History (posted on the Nettime mailinglist, April 4, 2000)

Peter Lunenfeld (PL): During your presentation at mediawork 15: Post ’89 Theory, you mentioned your interest in seeing Europe become a museum. What precisely did you mean to do by raising the idea that Europe should transform itself purposefully into a repository of culture? How would a post-historical Europe be less dangerous to itself and to others?

Geert Lovink (GL): For me, crucial to the idea of Museum Europe is the role of culture. Here are some of my imperatives: Approaching technology from culture is not by definition conservative or regressive (or Luddite).

It should be possible to think and act from within technology and no longer position culture outside of it. Soon technology will not even be our second nature but our first. This means that we will no longer see technology as something which is coming from the outside (the Alien), trying to destroy our human culture or even human nature. It should be possible to be absolutely modern, not just in an unreconstructed way (which I learned from McKenzie Wark). We can now skip the boring, cynical parts of post modernism and take up the huge tasks and fights which are ahead of us, for example the conflicts between generations and (sub)cultures, the war against youth, the rise of inequality in income, education and access to basic resources, not to mention the environmental troubles which are surrounding us. The fight over cyberspace is just one of them, a particular passionate one (at least for me) which has not yet reached the level of maturity as real issues over redistribution (of channels and wealth) have not yet been posed.

Finally, we should strive not to repeat the fatal mistakes of the last century. To accomplish all of this, Europe need not to give up History so much as to generate lots of histories with a small “h”: not to crush optimism or expectations, but rather to fight the regression which is built into the New.

PL: These ideas struck a resonant chord with the mediawork audience, though, of course, what you were saying was far less inflammatory for Americans (especially those based on the West Coast, a vantage point from which Europe already very far distant and historicized). Museum Europe raises an interesting issue, which is simply this: Can a country or a continent eschew “active participation” in either History or histories and remain rich? In other words, in becoming a museum wouldn’t Europe be committing economic suicide, or at least accepting a greatly reduced economic role?

GL: I indeed think that culture is widely being overestimated these days. Money is driving the new economy, not culture or the arts (or creativity). One has to face this fact in order to negate it. Culture can longer be seen as a motor, as it was in the mid nineties, but rather as an after-effect. Europe is still rich (second only to the US) and getting richer, but of course it will lose the fight over the Internet and the New Economy, which I personally think of as afunny, rather than tragic eventuality. At least, this second position should not turn into a disaster. All European cyber efforts will be too little too late — with some few exceptions for localities such as London, Stockholm, Helsinki, Amsterdam, and a few others. Yes, we can claim to be the inventors of WWW — thanks to Tim Berners-Lee for writing that book — but we can as well blame ourselves for not understanding the genius of this idea. At this point, and in this place, I prefer to enjoy the debacle called Europe, as our group Adilkno has described die Lage in the late nineties. So, the expectation that culture can be our very European, magic ingredient to turn technology into gold, should be criticized and actively discouraged.

PL: You mention specific urban exceptions to your vision for the continent as a whole. What precisely do you mean to do by exempting cosmopolitan metropolises like London and Amsterdam?

GL: I am particularly referring to the role of new media arts, design, and education and the virtual intelligentsia in a more general term. Things are just moving too fast these days for arts to play a role. The situation in Europe is competitive. For example, it was just announced that Cisco will build its European headquarters in Amsterdam, bringing 4500 new IT jobs. That will have a significant impact on this rather small city (and a devastating effect on rental prices and the already overheated real estate market). It is all getting expensive and crowded. Not a very good environment for new ideas and concepts to flourish. I think places like Berlin are better off these days with their sophisticated, sustainable ways of cultivating crisis and bankruptcy. It is not always pleasant to live in the New Economy (ask so many of the citizens of Silicon Valley).

PL: After his presentation at LA’s MOCA, I spoke with Vuk Cosic about Museum Europe. He expressed his interest not in Europe ending its active historical agency, but rather that the continent might put it into deep freeze. The question also arose about how a Europe that had made this decision would confront a “rogue” state like Finland, which through its early adoption culture and devotion to all things Nokia would threaten to melt the freeze?

GL: What is deep freezing other than upholding? I am very much in favor of the next Cold War, a self-imposed renunciation of historical ambitions. A lot needs to be done here throughout Europe, and not only in the Balkans, where it is obviously necessary. Finland’s policy, rather than combating the Museum, actively contributes to the containment of Europe. In general one could say that prosperity, under a strict regime of the welfare state (redistribution of wealth, health care and education for all etc.) neutralizes historical ambitions. And this system is still in place in Scandinavia (though under threat, as it is elsewhere). I am a big fan of nationalizing telecom infrastructure such as cable. I know this is a very unpopular, heretic idea but I am very convinced that this will be the only way to forestall a severe economic crisis (as the economy as a whole is depending more and more on this infrastructure). Nationalization could be done in such a way that it restores public ownership (not necessary the power of the State). It could also enforce the coming into being of a digital public domain. All this can only be done first in the Northern countries like Scandinavia and Holland.

PL: And, I would add, that nationalization of the telcom infrastructure will absolutely never happen in the United States without a full scale, armed revolution. To discuss the nationalization and welfare state in the year 2000 is to immediately confront the spread of neo-liberalism. Can you expand on the ways in which Museum Europe relates to the ongoing privatization of state operations throughout the continent?

GL: Third Way thinkers have no idea about the long term destabilizing effect of their privatization craze. They have forgotten how fatal the relation in Europe can be between the social question and war. And how the social question, almost by default, is being transformed into ethnic and gender issues. Unfortunately perhaps, Europe is not an innocent place upon which all sorts of pragmatic Anglo-Saxon ideas can be projected. That would be naive, and challenges the box of Pandora, named History, to be opened. It is also rather one dimensional, lacking knowledge of reflexivity (as the Popper scholar George Soros calls it). One should be able to anticipate the consequences of one’s policies. That would be true cybernetics, to understand the feedback loops of our actions. Perhaps this is too much of dialectics for today’s world which so much likes to elide oppositions, preferring to bathe in a profusion of difference.

PL: I see this discussion as being an integral part of how we will analyze the impact of IT and networks on society as a whole, not just in Europe, but around the world. I feel it will occasion the wholesale reworking, or better yet, invention of discursive systems to discuss economics, culture, and identity. That’s why I’ve been so insistent of late that we need new names for the present, if only to give ourselves the same kind of freedom to invent that the postmodernists claimed for themselves in the mid-’70s and early ’80s, before the cynicism you note earlier came to dominate that mode of discourse. I felt this lack of nomenclature particularly strongly when I was organizing and then titling the last mediawork, which I ended up calling “Post ’89 Theory” as a kind of default. That was an accurate description, though as I noted there and on then more recently during the on-line discussion on “Networks and Markets,” one that was too easy to take as being determined by a particular year, when what I really meant was Post Post ’68. I just want to get away from the sort of historicizing referentiality of the prefix.

GL: I do not read the 1989 events as a reawakening of History. In some countries, like Former Yugoslavia we can see a return to History, an almost fatal attraction/passion there. But elsewhere, throughout the former Eastern Block one can witness a common desire to wake up from the nightmare called History. People want to leave normal lives, and would like to be left alone, just be regular, normal Europeans, each with their own particular local folklore. It will still take decades to restore the damage done by Yalta (the partition of Europe between the super powers). Only after, much later, we can start to think of a new relation between the EU and Russia. For the time being, most of the Eastern part of Europe is still under the spell of this endless period of Transition (with its horrific readjustment ideology).

PL: To close our discussion here, can you lay out how you would define your particular political positions these days, in relation to both North American neo-liberalism and the European tradition from which you come?

GL: Libertarians in America have no idea about the workings of the State in Europe because they lack the experience of totalitarian regimes (and their deeper causes). The workings of the state are not intended simply to frustrate the market, as many tend to believe these days. The welfare state was (and still is for me) as much an answer to historical fascism as it is an attempt to civilize capitalism. I am saying all this as an anarchist (with autonomist tendencies). One who has not forgotten the ideological and economic constellations of the early thirties of the twentieth century in Europe, with all its tragic consequences, from which we are still trying to recove. A fatal, destructive period, which by the way also managed to destroy the anarchist and syndicalist movements, a fact which is perhaps often overlooked — a blow which anarchism as a historical force has not been able to survive.

Geert Lovink is a media theorist and net critic, until recently based in Amsterdam. Peter Lunenfeld lives in Los Angeles. His latest book is Snap to Grid: A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Culture (MIT Press, 2000). mediawork 15: Post ’89 Theory took place on February 11, 2000 at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA.