Saturday, May 15, 2004

Amnesia Union

Anthropologist Marc Abélès of the Laboratory for the Anthropology of Social Institutions and Organizations attempts to understand the culture of the European Union. The EU has few symbols, no rituals, no festivals, no motivating slogans, and as a result, seldom inspires the imagination of European citizens, and then only with great difficulty. But it is still a community, one that can be observed for how it works. If we accept Abélès' description, the workings of the EU resemble the film “Memento” (in which the protagonist constantly loses his memories of his predicament).

The technocrats of the European Commission look at their work as acts of continual creation. The culture of compromise that has emerged makes looking at the past painful and defining its end goals impossible. They might reference the people who founded the union–people like Adenauer, Monnet and Schuman (my lecture on the roots of European integration). But these recollections distract from the technocrats work at best, raise memories of disagreements at worst:
Whatever the reason, the institution seems little concerned with managing its relations to time and this troubles its more lucid members. One seems to ignore the specific work of memory in such a way that each crisis is immediately enveloped in a cloak of forgetfulness. Reference to the past is usually limited to a brief remembrance of the founding fathers. Any references to tradition seems to be completely incongruous in the context of the European institutions.

Without making this history, the EU has no sense of its traditions–the values and ideals that motivate it. It has no narrative that describes the achievements of a united Europe and the mission that it will fulfill.

Instead, the EU moves in a forward flight of integration. Everyday, technocrats are consumed with realizing a new step in the process. But without tradition, the EU is forced to reinvent itself at every moment. Each step is another moment in which the union must be created, another moment in which its existence is in jeopardy:
No one waits for Europe to exist, one builds it up everyday.

Integration is not a goal. There are no clear goals to which the EU is working. It is the process of integration that it is sustaining, and the process that is ultimately affirmed. Furthermore, each step implicates the members into taking the next step:
engrenage’, an ‘action trap’ in which once the agents are set in a specific course of action, they find themselves obliged to take further actions.


This unusual culture makes the EU a unique community. Rather than working toward its own integration, it works towards harmonization of the disparate nations and peoples. Without a history and definable goals, it cannot motivate people the way that nations can. Conversely, the EU can do things that other types of communities cannot do. It is able to overcome the fractious relationships between nations or the divisiveness of their individual histories. The achievement of the EU is, and will be, to bring Europeans to work together rather than to mold them into a single people.

References from "Virtual Europe" in An Anthropology of the European Union (2000)

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