Pat Kane: Encounters inside Europe, seeking answers from beyond

In my role as part mediator, part blogger of this Hera conference, I have tailored some questions to the themes that are structuring your conference sessions on October 1st.

Again, I come at them as a journalist, entrepreneur and civic activist – educated in the humanities in the 80s, but having travelled sinuously through them (and beyond them) ever since. I have some stand-up, edge-of-the-public-square questions for you, requiring some kind of answer.

Here is one, responding to the academics and topics gathered under the title: Encounters Inside and Beyond Europe. Call it a “question from Citizen Kane”:

How can humanities help me think of Europe as more than just giant bureaucracy, difficult politics and even scarier economics? Could I ever get to something like an effective European identity, where I ‘feel’ European? Or is the place too complex for that to ever be credible?

Dwelling on this unwinds such a skein of memories, readings and positions in me. I was the son of a railway clerk in Scotland: yet one of the perks of my father being a British Rail employee was free travel across the European train network, which we used, throughout the seventies, to holiday in Italy.

My mother had some Italian background, from some WWII entanglements, on her own mothers’ side. So these Italy trips were means whereby my mother might exercise (and maybe exorcise) her “Neapolitan” (not Italian) speaking skills – and my father indulge his Sinatra/Mastrioanni-based love of Italian male style.

But what I remember most on these trips was the collective midnight wake-up in the couchette train carriage – the family gathering round the window, to look at the Alps, appearing intermittently as the train tunnelled its way through the Swiss mountains. If I think of Europe, not only do I think of these aspirant working-class journeys, but also of the sheer physicality, the spectral beauty, of these mountains.

A sublimity that was fleetingly experienced, but facilitated by the continential solidarity of railway workers, enabling ordinary familiies to affordably traverse the landmass. Cultural encounters, ramifying through all levels.

Another European intensity for me: doing promotions and tours in the late 80s and early 90s for my pop band, By this time, Habermas, Adorno and Bauman were all in the tour satchel, an anchor to the performances.

Habermas with his “constitutional patriotism” asserted over any ethnic notion of national identity; Adorno’s Minima Moralia hypnotising me with its heavy, post-Holocaust wit and coils of logic; Bauman’sModernity and the Holocaust stunning me with its sociological clarity about how continuous, rather than discontinous, we rational moderns might be with the depradations of Nazism.

But between the readings, jaunts through German, Italian and Dutch television studios; a sense, in the early days of the MTV-era, that there were powerful forces at work looking to homogenize, or at best merely localize, a culture of “stardom” and “virtuosity” that would easily span Europe. (I was also reading Frederic Jameson on postmodernism, and didn’t forget his apothegm: “where you see the proliferating term ‘media’, what it really means is ‘money’”)

Yet in terms of cultural encounters, many conversations face-to-face, across a dinner table, that implied a teeming underworld of historical experience.

A dignified German doctor on an ICE-train, fielding my blunt questions about historical guilt with grace and precision. An Italian press-girl, suddenly going silent and red as I asked her about the “Red Terror” of the Italian 70s, and quietly stating that she knew many who were “still unfairly behind bars”.

Standing with some poles in Warsaw, as we prepared to play at a concert titled SOPOT, after the mnemonic “Stamp Our Piracy Our Task”, watching Gorbachev being marched down some plane steps by Soviet soldiers. Are you concerned, I asked? “Nothing to do with us”, came the minder’s reply.

Personal testimony, of course. But I am genuinely interested in your research track, “Encounters Inside and Outside Europe”, because my own “European” identity seems to be very much “inside”. Perhaps it has stretched to the post-Soviet societies, or investigated stateless nations like Catalonia (or Scotland), or wondered where “Scandinavia” meets “Russia” in a European context.

But the point at which the boundaries of Europe shade, spectrum and blur into some other centre of cultural gravity is probably where there is most to gain, from your scholarly labours, in terms of enriching public understanding about Europe.

So to me, it seems there are huge stakes, both political and intellectual, in my opening question. Is the “feel” of being European, at the very least, a “constellation” (to use one of Adorno’s favourite terms) of emotions and values – the very principle of a complex, never-completed understanding of the world? Europe at best a “process”, never a completed “event”?

And yet, and yet. Might this same sophistication of, and about, identity be the best environment in which extraordinary new public institutions could be constructed – platforms for the healthy, developmental unfolding of differences and intensities?

Is the very difficulty of Europe as a concept what makes it so fertile and generative of societal reform? Or is all that reform potential to be lost, in the rueful aftermath of a storm of financial fundamentalism?

You have your research to do – but I sense there’s more to your interests in European cultural encounters than the undoubted intrinsic virtues of scholarship. Let me hear them, in comments below.