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Conversation with Jean-Claude Guillebaud

Essayist, reporter, winner of the Albert Londres Prize

by Caroline Gaudriault

“There are two possible futures, one terrifying, the other hopeful”

Métamorphose I, Le Radeau des illusions Métamorphose I, Le Radeau des illusions   © Gérard Rancinan

Caroline Gaudriault – It seems that Man has always felt a vital urge to travel to other lands. Some migrations have been prompted by the most rational of motifs: famine, war and natural catastrophes have forced men and women to take enormous risks and become refugees and exiles in the process. But other people have decided to migrate for different reasons, reasons intrinsic to human nature. The eternal quest for a supposedly better life in another country. Even if there is not a single tract of land on the surface of the planet that remains unexplored, they still yearn for an ideal destination, a perfect homeland of the mind.

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – Anthropologists tell us that myths about migrations and journeys feature in almost all human cultures, particularly in Oceania. This kind of mythology simultaneously speaks of rootedness and departure. Firstly, there is the foundational idea of the need to set down roots somewhere. This notion is all the more powerful in Oceania in that there is very little available land in the region. In Polynesian, the term is “fenois”, “the place on which one depends”. When a woman gives birth, the placenta is buried when the child is born. But there is also a contrary myth: the myth of departure, of the pirogue, of being torn away from one’s home island. The Maoris, or, in other words, the Polynesians, were the world’s first great seafarers. Over a thousand years ago they crossed the Pacific in their rudimentary pirogues. In most myths, especially Melanesian ones, this synergy between the wrench of leaving and the desire to set out on a great journey is expressed in a highly poetic way. If you go to that part of the world and talk to people there about contentious issues such as identity, universalism or communitarianism, they just burst out laughing. A Samoan once told me: “You Westerners think that there’s a choice between setting down roots and leaving. Between the particular and the universal. Between a tree and a pirogue. But what you don’t understand is that the tree provides the timber to make the pirogue”.

Caroline Gaudriault – … And a good education arms you for life.

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – … That’s right. And having an education and a native country also means being able to leave home. It’s troubling to see how these questions, which are as old as human culture itself, are once again the subject of so much attention. Because you’re right when you say that immigrants are willing to confront, often more than once, the risk of death and drowning in their stubbornly tireless attempts to reach the bright lights of Europe. It’s true that most of them are motivated by hunger or by political issues, for example a desire to escape the kind of oppression practiced in dictatorships. All these urgent reasons encourage them to leave home. But there’s another reason – adventure! And curiosity, too. The desire to see what’s at the other end of the horizon is as old as humanity itself. The Portuguese, who were great seafarers – one only has to think of Vasco da Gama – were also great migrants, great immigrants. They founded Brazil. There is a magnificent image in the Portuguese tradition: at least once in their lives, everyone must go on a journey to find the “arvor das patacas”. You have to cross the seas to seek the tree of fortune and bring it home.

Caroline Gaudriault – Emigrating is not just about going to live somewhere else. It’s a quest informed by the idea of finding something to bring back home: fortune, experience, love …

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – Yes, there’s often an idea of coming back home. I remember when I was a journalist with Le Monde in the 1970s, doing a report on the first wave of African immigration to France. I lived in a village in western Senegal with a group of people who emigrated to France. I lived with the same people in Paris’s 13th arrondissement. The immigrants lived with people from their own village back home, importing their own traditions. They always thought that they would eventually go back to Senegal. It was the obvious thing to do. They came to France to earn enough money to build themselves a house and buy themselves a pirogue in Africa. It’s not quite the same now. Since the policy of keeping families together was introduced, fewer immigrants have come to France with the intention of going back home. It’s a complicated subject, but I really do think that something has changed in this regard.

Caroline Gaudriault – Today, statistics tell us that over a billion people have left their countries of origin. That’s almost the entire population of China. Surely this is going to change the face of the world.

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – Yes. And yet … Those statistics don’t take into account a threat that we’re going to have to face – climate change. One of the greatest and most serious threats is the rise in sea level. Imagine if the sea level rose by three metres. It would cause massive migration involving hundreds of millions of human beings leaving their homes behind forever because, quite literally, they would have no choice. And no one knows how we would deal with a disaster of those proportions. This will probably be the next major crisis.

Caroline Gaudriault – A natural disaster of that size would render the idea of borders obsolete…

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – I don’t think the idea is obsolete in itself. But I agree that the nature of borders will probably change. Biologists tell us that there is something fascinating about borders between individual cells. In fact, they are porous. They let things pass through them while at the same time regulating themselves. They are neither closed nor impassable. Cells are able to manage circulation between two spaces, to regulate it, to increase or decrease it. What I do think is disappearing is the idea of a border in the sense of a wall. This idea is being replaced by the concept of the kind of separation we observe between living cells. But, regardless, we still seem to be building walls. We knocked down the Berlin Wall, but new ones have been put up in Israel and on the border between Mexico and the United States. The temptation remains. But, inevitably, we will have to face phenomena against which borders will afford no protection, because ecological events do not respect frontiers.

Caroline Gaudriault – And neither do diseases…

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – That’s very true. We’ve just been through the H1N1 Swine Flu crisis which originated in Mexico. Obviously, you can’t stop an epidemic with a border. The same goes for the world economy, which is largely dependent on global financial markets, which are not only free of borders but also, since they exist in cyberspace, free of all territorial constraints. We could also mention the new communication technologies (satellite antennae, satellite telephones, radio relay systems, digital TV, etc.). This technology means that you can effectively be in two places at once. For example, a Sikh from the Punjab who drives a New York cab lives in America and India at the same time. With a satellite dish he can watch Indian TV; he can use the Internet to phone members of his family for free … Physically, he’s an immigrant living in the United States, but in terms of his symbolic, cultural, day-to-day reality, he’s in a strange place. He’s simultaneously in the United States in the physical sense and back home with his people in the virtual sense.

Caroline Gaudriault – Being here and there at the same time is to be neither entirely here nor entirely there…

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – Yes. It’s a kind of friable location.

Caroline Gaudriault – A sort of non-place…

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – When you surf the Internet, where exactly are you? You’re in a strange place. From a technological point of view, you’re in your computer’s server, a place which is difficult to define. Similarly, when you communicate via the Internet, it’s hard to tell what time it is. It all depends on the person you’re communicating with. In other words, concepts like time and space become friable. They take on different aspects. They are redefined. Tiny conceptual revolutions that we don’t even notice. So, given the importance of computer technology in the modern world, it seems highly unlikely that ideas about borders won’t undergo a kind of metamorphosis. Obviously they’re changing.

Caroline Gaudriault – Nevertheless, the physical reality of a dominant place – the one in which we live – is still there. This place evokes more emotions in us than other places. We develop a particular attachment to it.

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – That’s a very European view of things. There’s a phrase that I really like: “Europe is the land of time and America is the land of space”. We are preoccupied with time. For us, space is secondary. Compared with the Americans, the Chinese and a lot of other nationalities, we Europeans tend not to move around a great deal. There are entire cultures structured around the idea of movement, of transformation, of change. America is characterised by the myth of mobility – just think of “On the Road”. It’s the new frontier. Cities are built and abandoned. The landscape is strewn with ghost towns and mobile homes.

Caroline Gaudriault – It is hardly surprising that people are thinking about borders in a new way. A lot has been said about the shock of civilisations in connection with this trend towards globalisation.

Jean-Claude Guillebaud –I think that’s all just nonsense. The idea, first mooted by Professor Samuel Huntington in 1993, caused an outcry. The nature of violence has changed. Over the last twenty years, outbreaks of violence have increasingly occurred within individual civilisations. The idea of a shock of civilisations was shot through with Islamophobia. But we shouldn’t forget that, even if there have been attacks on Western targets, the primary victims of Islamist terrorism are Muslims. Furthermore, the theory is based on the idea that civilisation is immutable and ahistorical. The Chinese, Indian, Slavic, African, Islamic and Latin American civilisations outlined by Huntington are, so he claims, unchanging. But, in reality, things are not like that at all. Civilisations – the word really doesn’t mean much – are evolving entities continually undergoing a process of metamorphosis. Far from being homogeneous, they are métisse, mixed, composite. The idea that modern day China and India continue to exist as some kind of eternal version of themselves is a fairly naïve culturalist notion. Young people in China are, on the one hand, Chinese and, on the other, highly westernized due to their education and the cultural references with which they have become entirely familiar. The students who held demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 talked about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Paris Commune, Montesquieu and Voltaire. They had an impressive amount of Western cultural baggage. They’ve seen the same films as we have; they live in the same globalised modern reality as we do. So Huntington’s theory, which casts great civilisations as monadic, self-contained entities is far from convincing, especially in that it basically rests on a good guy-bad guy premise.

Caroline Gaudriault – It’s a theory which reflects a certain Western mentality. The West has defined itself as the ideal model for others to follow. At one point, the notion of an “axis of evil” was even bandied about…

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – I was just coming to that. When it was first mooted, the theory of the shock of civilisations was adjudged to be mediocre and irrelevant. Then came 9/11. The attacks seemed to retrospectively vindicate Huntington’s ideas. George W. Bush and the US administration took the theory to heart and designated an axis of evil. A catastrophic error. The line taken was: "we’re good, the others are bad and we’re going on a crusade to rid the world of evil". It took America back to its old ways of thinking, its fixation with a kind of lost innocence. The conquest of the West, defeating the Indians, the incarnation of evil which had to be eliminated. The Vietnam War was informed by the idea of eradicating evil in order to save the world. The election of Obama is an expression of Vietnam syndrome vis-à-vis George W. Bush, an attempt to make amends for Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, as well as for the defence of torture. It shouldn’t be forgotten that a substantial number of American intellectuals went on record as being in favour of the use of torture. They even invited General Aussaresses, who used torture on behalf of the French army during the Algerian War, to give them advice. The period following 9/11 was tinged with a kind of madness.

Caroline Gaudriault – It was a period in which we observed the development of a deeply questionable rhetoric which was used to rush the Western powers into war on a wave of popular support that hadn’t been seen for a long time. This rhetoric was also used to hide an old, deep-seated desire to conquer the world. It was a perfect pretext to assuage the West’s traditional imperialist tendencies…

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – Of course! It was a lure which hid something else: a clear-cut imperialist agenda based on the objective of guaranteeing America’s energy needs (oil, etc.). And there was also something more sinister and perverse – not to say dangerous – going on, namely the decision to cast the enemy as the devil, the incarnation of evil. That was the turning point. People began, imperceptibly, to persuade themselves that the end justified the means and that, when it comes to eradicating evil, anything goes. That’s what ended up happening. In order to liberate Iraq, America killed Saddam Hussein.

Caroline Gaudriault – The example provided by 9/11 shows that the initial reaction was to diabolize the Other and turn in on the Self. It took a certain amount of time to realise that this kind of irrational attitude was bound to end in tears.

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – Yes, it was a dangerous approach which, inevitably, led to more violence. It seems that we are living in a time in which people are putting up barriers, hunkering down in their respective cultures, identities and civilisations. The Hindus are taking refuge in the Hindutva. The Mayas and Aztecs are learning their ancient languages. All over the world, local dialects are getting a second wind. In the ex-Yugoslavia, micro-nationalistic rivalries between Serbs, Croatians and Bosnians are re-emerging. Everyone is aggressively brandishing their own cultural standard. Muslim fundamentalism is a communitarian retreat into a mythical Islam. All of this is creating an impression of fragmentation. One might think that people are systematically closing themselves off from one another. But, at the same time, there is an opposing trend. Anthropologists, who study deep underlying societal trends (female education, average age of marriage, number of children per woman, etc.), claim that the world’s various societies are becoming increasingly similar. This is also valid for Muslim countries, which seem at first glance to be very different from ours. For example, in the Islamist Republic of Iran, civil society has been able to negotiate at least some of the obstacles set up by the Mullahs’ regime to ensure that the country is far more modern and westernized than it was when the Shah was in power. There have never been as many women at university; there are more women doctors and engineers than ever before. On a superficial level, the ruling regime gives the impression that the opposite is true, that the country is in thrall to a narrow-minded religious obscurantism, that an anti-feminist ideology, exemplified by burqa-wearing women, holds sway. Considered together, these two trends, even if they oppose one another, function as two different levels of reality. It’s a complex phenomenon. We can’t deny that this “meeting of civilisations” – in which, at the demographic level and in terms of educational structures, different societies are becoming increasingly similar to each other – is an established, ongoing process. A process of convergence and métissage.

Caroline Gaudriault – The West’s desire for supremacy is probably at the root of two contradictory attitudes characterising the rest of the world – admiration and repulsion.

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – Yes. I think that in many parts of the world, people have a strange, love-hate relationship with the West. If you go to an isolated village in India or a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, you’ll find people who are fascinated by the hegemonic Western lifestyle they see on the TV and who, at the same time, aggressively reject that lifestyle. What is more important is that the era of Western supremacy is over. But we haven’t yet become aware of it.

Caroline Gaudriault – In fact, considering the relative backwardness of Western civilization some five hundred years ago, it’s astonishing that that era of supremacy should ever have started in the first place.

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – The West has an extraordinary history. It’s like a detective novel. It’s still enigmatic. To cut a long story short, let’s say that until the mid-16th century, European culture was far behind its rivals. The Chinese were printing books eight hundred years before Gutenberg. Indian astronomers discovered the truth about the movement of the stars a thousand years before Galileo. The Byzantines built the first great metropolis, complete with fountains, a race course and marble esplanades in the 10th and 11th centuries when Paris was no more than a small town with wooden houses. The Arabs used the numbers we still use today to lay the foundations of algebra. But from the mid-16th to the mid-17th century, European culture more than closed the gap. In fact, it left the other great civilisations trailing in its wake, building up a massive technological advantage in a very short space of time. It acquired economic, technological, military and cultural hegemony in no more than a hundred years. That hegemony enabled it to create colonies all over the world and to impose its culture and ideas at a deep level. The concept of philosophy reached China from Europe. The Jesuits taught the Chinese Euclidian geometry. The Japanese borrowed a huge number of ideas from the Europeans. The status of the Japanese Emperor – mid-way between Man and God – was a direct swipe from the French kings consecrated at Reims. First Europe, and then, with the coming of the United States, the West, remade the world’s great cultures. It remodelled them. In fact, we had a very simple worldview involving a centre – the West and America – and a traditional periphery under the West’s influence.

Caroline Gaudriault – In fact, the West always used to be the focal point of maps of the world.

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – That’s changing now, because that approach has become obsolete. Other centres, which will, in turn, exert enormous influence, have recently emerged: China, India, Latin America … We are increasingly living in a multi-polar world even in terms of cultural influence. It’s what I call “métisse modernity”. We developed the habit of thinking of ourselves, and no one else, as the representatives of modernity. What was modern was Western; what was traditional was those other people. We are going to have to share our claims on being modern. Our monopoly on the concept of modernity is no longer valid.

Caroline Gaudriault – Would you agree with the assertion that the West is taking all this rather badly?

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – The West is taking it very badly because it feels that its hegemony is being threatened. Our reflex Occidentalist attitudes have something tragic about them. Occidentalism is the fear that the barbarians are at the gates, that we have to fight to maintain our status. It’s telling ourselves that we are the representatives of Democracy in the world. It doesn’t really matter whether the West takes it well or badly, it won’t change a thing in the long run.

Caroline Gaudriault – So are immigration quotas merely a delaying tactic?

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – No, because now you’re talking about immigration, which represents a somewhat different problematic. Migration is inevitable. We can’t stop it, but we have to regulate it and try to make sure that we don’t entirely lose control of the phenomenon. If we just stand back and let things happen we run the risk of provoking dangerous identity-based reactions. Extreme right-wing populism is still a threat. We can’t allow societies to be destabilised. In the long term, we’re involved in a process of cultural, and not simply social métissage. And this process is not necessarily linked to immigration as such. Take a look at Japanese society. In terms of its population, it’s one of the least mixed in the world, but insofar as culture is concerned, it’s highly cosmopolitan. Every aspect of society, even the counter-culture, is extremely modern and yet, at the same time, highly traditional. In this sense, it’s completely mixed. Chinese modernity is developing in the same way. We have to get used to the idea that we will no longer have a monopoly over being modern. It isn’t a tragedy. Our DNA is everywhere so we shouldn’t imagine for a moment that we’re going to lose all influence. On the contrary. We’ll only risk losing influence if we make the mistake of developing a bunker mentality.

Caroline Gaudriault – There’s been a lot of talk recently about the demise of Western values. What kind of future do you see for the West?

Jean-Claude Guillebaud – There are two possible futures, one terrifying, the other hopeful. The terrifying one would involve a form of cultural retreat consisting in the idea that we’re under siege and that we have no choice but to defend ourselves. This would be tantamount to accepting the position extolled by the extreme right. We would become a tribe amongst others, a White tribe in a world teeming with other people. The promising future would consist in returning to our true tradition, the tradition which enabled us to become dominant and exert influence in the first place; in other words, the capacity for self-criticism that European culture has always possessed. The Jewish philosopher, Éric Veil, summed it up when he said, “Europe has always been a tradition unsatisfied with its own tradition”. It has always been able to criticise itself, to call itself into question. It is loath to indulge in any form of self-celebration. That is what has given it an advantage over other cultures. The reason Chinese culture stagnated for hundreds of years is because it fell into the habit of celebrating its past achievements and consequently stopped moving forwards. The same can be said of the Islamic world which, after the period of open-mindedness represented by Averroes and Avicenna, developed a dogmatic vision of its values from around the 13th century. If the West follows the same route, then we will become just one culture amongst others. But if we manage to return to and revivify our tradition of self-criticism, then we will be able to retain our specificity in the international context and continue to exert influence by means other than military power. It’s obvious. We can easily continue to exert influence without being hegemonic: “Greece conquered has conquered its savage conqueror! Greece defeated has defeated Rome!” Defeated militarily and economically, it was Greece that fertilised, transformed and remodelled the culture of the Roman Empire …”

Interview conducted at the Editions du Seuil, Paris, May 27, 2009

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