An Exclusive Claim to Truth



The technology for manipulating images, films or sound recordings is becoming ever more sophisticated. What is truth, what is manipulation? The answer to this question is increasingly difficult to find. What happens to cultural memory? What about the printed book? Our two authors stress how much we rely on particular achievements – such as truth, credibility and accountability – for our peaceful coexistence. By Aleida und Jan Assmann in the Culture Report 2020 'Reset Europe'

Portrait of cultural scientists Aleida and Jan Assmann
Jan and Aleida Assmann; Photo: Martin Kraft

Res publica litteraria, a homeland that knows no national borders. This homeland was founded on the cusp of the age of the printing press by poets, humanists, publishers and booksellers. These are the figures who mediated between old and new languages, thereby laying the foundation of European diversity. In doing so, they fashioned the library as their realm of communication and set into motion a true Geister-Gespräch – a dialogue of exalted spirits – that developed across centuries and national borders. In 1950, the newly launched tradition of the Peace Prize brought this dialogue of exalted spirits – upheld to this day by writers, publishers, booksellers and readers – back into the public sphere. Indeed, we should never forget that the term Res publica litteraria contains the word 'public'. Although books open up 'thinking spaces' for the spirit and libraries are vast archives of information containing a universe of fantasy and imagination, does this automatically mean that they, too, generate a public sphere?

Whereas reading scatters and isolates, the public sphere pulls us together and addresses each and every one of us. Hannah Arendt argued that her mentor, Karl Jaspers – whom she referred to as an 'incorruptible philosopher and dissident' – may have been isolated and on his own during the Third Reich but he was never alone because he had a spiritual home in 'the realm of humanitas', which everyone can come to out of their own origins.

The 'public', as we all know, is the opposite of the 'private'. 'Public', however, can also mean the opposite of a repressive silence – one that must be broken time and again, as we saw most recently with regard to the handling of victims of sexual violence. Jaspers, too, saw the public sphere as a battlefield upon which truth must do constant battle with untruth. He considered untruth to be 'the true evil destroying every peace.' And, for Jaspers, untruth had many guises: 'from concealment to blind indifference, from lies to inner mendacity, from foolishness to a rigid truth fanaticism, from the untruthfulness of the individual condition to the untruthfulness of the public condition.' Since Jasper's day, the universe of communication has become infinitely more abundant and flexible, with many more voices joining in; however, it has also become much more difficult and – above all – more dangerous to navigate. When we speak of the 'public' here, we must also speak of 'media', that is, we must distinguish between the organs of the public sphere, such as newspapers, television and radio, on the one hand, and their technical infrastructures, on the other.

Indeed, each individual technological base creates the public realm in a different way. Whereas the printing age and analogue photography were still calibrated to serve values such as truth, evidence and verifiability, in the digital age, the door has been left wide open to data manipulation. For example, while it has long since been possible to manipulate images at will, IT engineers in Germany and the US are now working on a very disturbing AI faceswapping technology that will enable anyone to create fake photorealistic videos, thus making it look like a person is speaking words they never spoke. In April of this year, a Google engineer presented a video he had made while still a student showing Barack Obama uttering a number of things he never said, all deceptively real and matched perfectly to his facial expressions. In other words, we will soon, quite literally, be able to put words into anyone's mouth without being able to judge definitively where an expression or an opinion originated.

And yet, we not only have to deal with ever-increasing levels of obfuscation thanks to fake news and the latest technologies; we've also had to confront more traditional forms of deceptive behaviour, for example, in the auto industry with regard to the manipulation of emission levels. Only now, as this type of obfuscation grows more prevalent, is it becoming clear to us how desperately we rely on particular achievements – such as truth, credibility and accountability – for our peaceful coexistence.

In a true democracy, the work of thinking cannot be delegated, that is, it cannot be left up to experts, performers and demagogues. Eight years ago, in his bestselling essay Indignez-vous!, 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel let us all know that it was 'a time for outrage!' Since then, that indignation has switched sides – and it has done so all over the world.

While it is true that democracies gain in strength through disputes and debate, this does not mean that everything in a democracy is subject to negotiation. A democracy must have inviolable convictions and be based on a shared consensus, for example, in the form of a constitution, human rights and the separation of powers as well as in the independence of the legal system and the media. Indeed, not every dissenting voice deserves to be heard. A voice that seeks to undermine the pillars upon which the diversity of opinion is built forfeits in that moment any respect it may have had. In other words, democracy thrives not on disputes, but rather on good arguments. Loutish behaviour, verbal attacks and the increasing use of polarising symbols, such as we saw recently in Chemnitz, can only lead to a state of general confusion, which, in turn, inevitably leads to a paralysis of democracy, ultimately rendering it incapable of carrying out its important tasks.

Jaspers was one of the individuals who developed a vision of a new Europe in the wake of two catastrophic world wars. For Jaspers, this vision involved first and foremost the overcoming of European conceit towards other countries and cultures. Just one year after the end of the war, he declared: 'Gone is that European arrogance which used to think in terms of "world-history" what was in reality only occidental history'. Jaspers sought to bring an end to Europe's exclusive and destructive hegemony in the world and instead integrate it into a global vision of humanity that 'made a great leap' as a whole around 500 B.C. This is the core of his idea of the 'Axial Age', a new interpretation of history that sought to place Europe on par with other advanced civilisations.

In that era thousands of years ago, many cultures saw the emergence of great minds whose words and thoughts continue to shape our lives to this day. In Greece, it was poets and thinkers such as Homer and Plato; in Israel it was the prophets; in Persia, it was Zarathustra; in India, it was Buddha; and in China, it was Lao Tzu and Confucius. These figures established a Geisterreich – a realm of exalted spirits – in which, to use the words of Hannah Arendt, 'they appear once more as speaking individuals – speaking from the realm of the dead; speakers who, because they had passed from the temporal world, were able to become eternal companions in the realm of exalted spirits.' Jaspers' agenda for peace started at a cultural level. As scholars of culture, this approach speaks to both of us. However, it also presents us with a number of challenges. Our research, too, is based on the observation that some so-called advanced civilisations used writing and other forms of transmission to create traditions that have lasted for thousands of years. This sense of contemporaneity with great thinkers, poets and founders – this connection and comprehensibility between their and our time upheld through traditions – is exactly what we refer to as 'cultural memory'. However, unlike Jaspers and Arendt, who presupposed the 'realm of exalted spirits' as something self-evident, we focused the lens of our research on the very question of how traditions are built.

First, our thesis posits that cultural memory is the result of ceaseless cultural work. Here, it would suffice to recall the unbelievable efforts made by ancient Egyptian culture to maintain its recognisability across the millennia, that is, to make it possible for us to read inscriptions even after two-and-a-half centuries and to continue to practise the formal language of art and architecture. This was no 'dull perseverance', as Max Weber put it, but instead the result of intensive work on cultural memory.

Second, a cultural memory requires dialogue and vigorous engagement with each respective present. The texts, books and authors that are closest to us are those we reinterpret time and again – the ones into which we are able to input our own thoughts. Those that become unfamiliar to us are doomed to disappear in an archive – from which they can nevertheless be rediscovered at a later date. Thirdly, although Jaspers envisioned the realm of humanitas as a sphere of 'limitless communication', we do not go that far. Instead, our theory is based on the acknowledgment of borders and differences in the realm of humanitas.

Indeed, humanity exists in the singular, but cultures, languages and religions exist only in plurals. For this reason, we also do not speak of 'knowledge' but of 'memory', which is always already bound to identities, perspectives and, of course, interests. Society needs a memory just as individuals do; we need memories in order to know who we are and what to expect, and to be able to develop and orient ourselves.

The American political scientist Seyla Benhabib expressed it in the following manner: 'Culture is a dialogue of multiple voices across generations, connecting the past, present and future by means of conflicting narratives.' Remaining recognisable is the task of a cultural as well as a national memory. In this sphere, however, a number of things have changed in recent years. We can no longer seamlessly draw on old fantasies of national pride and greatness. The national memory, which served as a pedestal for honour, pride and heroism for a long time, has become more complex, more inclusive and more self-critical.

Still, it is not only a pedestal that makes the nation larger and more powerful, but also a mirror of self-knowledge, remorse and change. The nation is not a holy grail that needs to be protected from defilement and desecration but a union of people who are also capable of remembering shameful episodes in their history and taking responsibility for the monstrous crimes committed in their name. We must keep one important difference in mind here: it is the history alone that is shameful, not the liberating memory of it, which is something we share with the victims. This is why identity does not emerge through denial, ignoring or forgetting; in fact, identity also requires the act remembering in order for it to become accountable, that is, to take on responsibility and foster a change in values and national self-image. And yet, that which connects us – whether it be our origins, religions, convictions or projects – is often also that which separates us. Thus the following key question arises: How exclusive or inclusive is this national 'we' that emerges through identity and identification? We move from the theme of cultural memory to the theme of social and political solidarity; and here we would like to draw upon the research done by another couple among our Peace Prize predecessors. Alva and Gunnar Myrdal were honoured here in 1970 – that is, in a critical phase of the Cold War – for their energetic advocacy of nuclear disarmament. In addition to the nuclear menace, they also saw other issues as posing a threat to world peace: the lack of equal opportunity and integration, the erosion of solidarity due to racial discrimination and the exclusion of entire groups as a result of increasing economic inequality. Gunnar Myrdal even anticipated the experience of globalisation when he argued that '[a]s a result of revolutionary technical and political changes, nation states will inevitably become more and more dependent on one another'. He also emphasised 'that the prevailing freetrade theories and their application will lead to a further deepening of existing inequality at the expense of poor countries'. Myrdal's argument is more relevant today than ever before. His model at the time was the Swedish welfare state, but his utopia went even further and aimed to carry over the principle of the welfare state to the world stage in the form of a 'welfare world'. Still, Myrdal had no illusions about the forces of opposition that stand ubiquitously in the way of our willingness to express solidarity on a global scale. People are very willing to show solidarity with others when they have the same attitudes and pursue the same goals. We are all familiar with the type of solidarity that comes in the form of a nation's 'collective egoism' – the model here being 'America First!' In recent years, we have also come to know the transnational collective egoism of populist parties, their model being that of a 'Fortress Europe'.

These forms of solidarity are exclusionary and aim to keep others out. Integration, on the other hand, calls for an inclusive form of solidarity that extends to people who are different from us – people with whom we nevertheless want to build a common future. Money and greed neutralise cultural foreignness, however they, too, divide the world – into the rich and the poor. Nationalist political forces are very adept at diminishing solidarity in many areas; for example, by inciting hatred for those who are weaker or foreign. This leads to a Milieuvergiftung, yet another term used by Gunnar Myrdal, this time to refer to a poisoning of the social atmosphere with which he drew parallels to an Umweltvergiftung, the contamination of the physical environment.

On the path to achieving a welfare world, as he envisioned it, Myrdal argued that solidarity must therefore be cultivated on all levels: as social solidarity on the level of society, as transnational solidarity on the EU level and, above all, as global solidarity in the handling of economic and natural resources so as to ensure that subsequent generations can even have a future. Today, we must add to this our solidarity with refugees – people who have had their futures destroyed by war, hardship and violence. It simply cannot be the case that we endorse a neoliberal freedom of movement with regard to capital, goods and raw materials, while migrants drown in the Mediterranean or are left stranded at national borders and we forget the people, their fate, their suffering and their future. The key question here is no longer whether we are going to succeed at achieving integration, but instead how we are going to go about achieving it. Unfortunately, it almost appears as if this development is moving backwards. When the scope of public discourse is narrowed down to include only a few issues, this serves only to fan the flames of the debate while doing very little to assist in clarifying and handling current problems.

I was speaking recently to a social worker – a woman who works with foreigners and has lived in Dresden for 15 years – and she told me in perfect German: 'When I open my mouth and people hear my Russian accent, I'm suddenly a migrant again, and nothing else.' Others, many of whom have lived here three times as long, have told me that they, too, have been gripped by naked fear in recent days. Shall we speak, for a change, about areas in which efforts are actually bearing fruit? We would like to provide three examples. Our first example brings us to Olga, the women whom we just quoted. She belongs to a group of Russian-speaking citizens who found a home here in Germany at the end of the 1990s. This group are anything but indifferent about what happens to their adopted country and its democracy, which is why they founded an association called 'Phoenix'. These people are the new patriots. As individuals who have undergone the process of integration themselves, they know best how integration works. And this is why they are putting their experience and commitment to work as mediators between German authorities and immigrants looking for employment. These citizens are currently working in a race with the AfD, a political party that has proven very clever and effective at using new immigrants for their own political ends.

Migrants helping migrants; this is also the principle behind the second group we would like to mention here, a project called 'Back on Track – Syria'. This group of Berliners works with Syrian teachers to give Syrian children a proper education. Their aim is to get these children – who were torn from their daily lives due to civil war and flight – 'back on track'. Using their newly developed method of 'guided self-learning', they have succeeded at reaching a large number of 'derailed' children.

The third association we would like to mention here is called Helfende Hände (Helping Hands) and was founded by two Austrian couples. This group manages schooling and medical care in an underprivileged area of Kenya. With the help of donations and sponsorships, they were able to build a school that welcomes children from the poorest families. Their work in education helps save families from the misery that prompts so many Africans to flee to Europe. This year, 19 of the 33 pupils in their last year of secondary school were able to make the transition from school to university. This is five times the national average. The demand is great, and it is our hope that the school will be able to grow even further. We mention these three initiatives in particular because it is to them that we will be donating the money we receive as part of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. But we're not done yet. Shared heritage? The borders between cultures are permeable. Indeed, translators and interpreters are among the oldest professions in the world, having accompanied tradesmen on their routes for as long as those routes existed. Cultures can cross borders through the import and export of books, but also by means of translations, appropriations and reinterpretations. Through this contact with other cultures, all cultures are transformed: they overlap, inspire and leave lasting changes on one another. It is not possible to bring cultures to a standstill, nor can they be confined to national borders. Cultural memory comprises not only books and sacred texts, but also monuments, landscapes and locations.

There is a very simple criterion that enables us to take up a perspective of peace, and we found it, once again, in Karl Jaspers: 'That which is true is that which connects us to one another!'


About Jan and Aleida Assmann

Jan Assmann (born 1938) is an expert in Egyptology and Theory of Religon and an emeritus professor of the University of Heidelberg. He has a particular interest in cultures of remembrance.

Aleida Assmann is an Anglicist, Egyptologist and specialist in literary and cultural studies.  Since the 1990s her research has focused on cultural anthropology, particularly the topic of cultural memory, remembrance and forgetting. Aleida Assmann also researches and writes with her husband, Jan Assmann. In 2018 they were awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

About the Cultural Report

In May the Cultural Report 2020 'Reset Europe' by ifa will be published with the following topics:

1: Democracy on the Backfoot – In Defense of Freedom
2: Reset Europe – Crisis as Opportunity

3: Social Fragmentation – The Fight to Control the Narrative

The image that Europe is currently presenting could hardly be more contradictory: isolationism, populism, scepticism about integration and post-Brexit pragmatism all mixed with a newly blossoming euphoria about the European idea. Does Europe need a new start? Above all, it needs orientation. In the face of democratic crises, climate change, structural change and the hate that exists in society, the people of Europe need new ways of solving pressing problems. Can culture help to win back the trust of Europe's citizens and rekindle critical, intellectual debate? Can it create more tolerance? And can it defend Europe's existential values of human rights, multilateralism and international solidarity? The contributors to this Culture Report look for the answers to these questions.

All issues of the Culture Report can be downloaded for free on ifa Publikationen.

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