These excerpts are from a more lengthy excerpt of an essay by Breyten Breytenbach, one of my favorite writers, published in the September 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Speaking at a UNESCO conference on Culture and Diversity about his experience working with graduate students “in the creative-writing program of a university in Babylon” (meaning New York University), Breytenbach writes:
In this joint creative activity, I found that we deal sooner or later—among other more mundane concerns, and from many different angles—with questions such as the following: what if any are the limits of the permissible, and, a related matter, does imagination have a moral content or connotation? In other words, is it a question of the links between aesthetics and ethics? Is creativity a form of power, or do the arts constitute a nonpower in opposition to (and as a subversion of) the power of politics and the market? If nonpower is in contrast to power, why is it not then a counter power? Because it doesn’t try and gain adherents or exercise influence, perhaps? The writer and the politician both rely on words and work the field of perception manipulation—but do they use the same vocabulary? More importantly, how do the purposes of communication differ? Is the one language not dangerously infectious to the other?
Señora Lourdes Arizpe […] had said on the first day of the conference that “politics is the art of the possible.” I propose that art or creativity is, among other things and manifestations, the politics of the impossible—that is, both the dream and the responsible materialization of transgression.
Unfortunately, as we know, large sectors of humanity (let’s call these sectors “cultures” for the sake of convenience) are led to believe that in the beginning there was Truth, and maybe innocence, and all of history since then is a sorry story of decadence and decay. When any culture, however rich or ancient, is but a confirmation of prejudices or the conservation and parroting of so-called truths, it is doomed to be exclusive, voracious, totalitarian, ultimately fundamentalist. I am not referring here only to known expressions of fundamentalist monotheism, although I’d venture to say that monotheism inevitably predisposes to fundamentalism and thus to intolerance. […] When the president of the United States and the prime minister of Britain suggest that September 11 was an attack on civilization, they are in effect equating civilization with globalization (which is but the married name of whorish expansionist capitalism), and therefore by implication making a case for Western global fundamentalism.
[P]oliticians not only do not shirk from terminating human life but indeed verily relish the enterprise. As long as those terminated are “foreign,” obviously. […] [A]s for the the bright cultural-export idea of promoting convivencia, the world living together harmoniously, it needed to be said that the poor world may well experience the diffusion of culture from the rich part as an encroachment. when last did a delegation of African anthropologists travel to europe to go and measure the circumference of a typical Auvergnat peasant’s head? And when you open your cultural institute in some underdeveloped, coughing, foot-shuffling country, should you not simultaneously open a similar institution in your own country to disseminate their culture? Surely reciprocity should be an absolute guideline? How else might you prove useful, messieurs les riches de ce monde?
To promote true exchanges. To open up spaces for vigorous creativity down there. To let us see some of the diversity and incoherence and confusions of your cultures, not just the smooth products adobed (and daubed) by officialdom. Why are you so expansionist? Is it in your barbaric nature? Are you not using “culture” as the lubricant for better screwing the rest of the world politically and economically?