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Other research product . Other ORP type . 2012

Defining Estonian culture on the national level: conceptual and critical analysis

Janson, Eero;
Open Access
Published: 01 Jan 2012
Publisher: Tartu Ülikool
Country: Estonia
The concept of “culture” is known to be extremely hard to define: while many have tried, there is still little agreement on what is meant when this term is used. The usage of “culture” has ranged from referring to everything that is man-made to signifying clearly bounded entities like national cultures, subcultures, etc. One particular example of this usage is the notion of “Estonian culture” which is used in nearly every cultural political document in Estonia. It is most importantly found in the preamble of the Estonian constitution where the purpose of the state is to “guarantee the preservation of the Estonian nation, language and culture through the ages” (note that in the Estonian language there is a distinction between the adjective “Estonian” with a capital “E” that refers to the state and with a small “e” that refers to the nation; the constitution uses the word with a small “e”). There is, nevertheless, no clarity in what it is that the state has to preserve. Taking this problem as its point of departure, this Master’s thesis seeks to analyze the usage of the notion of “Estonian culture” in the official cultural political discourse. For that purpose, two conflicting theoretical approaches are drawn out. First, the so-called essentialist cultural theory, exemplified by Johann Gottfried Herder, early anthropologists and many contemporary theorists of democracy and multiculturalism, is based on three central assumptions: (1) cultures are coherent and closed wholes, (2) these wholes have certain continuity that results in cultures having some “authentic” and unchanging cores, and (3) these cultural wholes are bounded up with particular social groups. The second, discourse theoretical approach is based on post-structuralist theory (as exemplified mainly by Michel Foucault, Ernesto Laclau and Jacques Derrida) and the problematization of these assumptions, resulting in an understanding of cultures as discourses, that is, as open systems that are constantly changing and that require the use of power to fix and enclose them. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein we know that the meaning of words comes from their use. For that reason and in the light of this theoretical opposition, the central Estonian cultural political documents were analyzed with the notion of “Estonian culture” in mind to find out (1) how the concept of “culture” is defined on the national level and (2) how the notion of “Estonian culture” acquires its boundaries and content. No particular discourse analytical tool was used, but rather general post-structuralist principles were kept in mind while reading the documents. In addition to official documents, interviews were carried out with seven officials from different cultural political institutions, concentrating on particular methods that work to enclose the cultural field. The analysis showed that Estonian cultural policy largely follows an essentialist understanding of culture, defining culture as a clearly bounded and static way of life of a particular group. Nevertheless, two other meanings were also attributed to the concept: culture as a sphere of government and culture as a sphere of artistic activity (i.e. professional culture). While the principle of coherence in the case of the latter ones is politico-geographical, the one of the national culture is less clear. To see whether such coherence exists in the Estonian national culture, several methods of closure were analysed. First, cultural field may be bounded by using positive means, that is, by naming and enumerating cultural elements and articulating these to be part of the national culture. This method is exemplified by different lists (e.g. national intangible cultural heritage list), archives and exhibitions. Second, cultural field may be also delineated by using negative means, that is, finding and naming “others” (or, in more severe cases, even “enemies”) who are different from “us”. This method is exemplified by different “cultural minorities” that are found and marked within the country, as well as by signifiers like “mass culture” and “modern culture”. Although these methods of closure that are based on different principles of selection can be used to make small decisions of belonging for different cultural elements, they fail to draw clear cultural boundaries and fill the signifier “Estonian culture” with content. Rather, its meaning stays open and deferred, thus leaving the central question – what is the entity that the state has to preserve? – also unanswered. Therefore, there is no clear principle of unity when it comes to the national culture, as even common language, “nation” and some understanding of continuity and “authenticity” fail to serve as this basis. Because the signifier “Estonian culture” is so overcoded and unclear, but is still required by the essentialist approach to culture, it can be seen to function as an empty signifier in the national identity discourse. Despite its important place and frequent use in political discourse, it signifies an empty place, an absent fullness, which is nevertheless necessary. The “Estonian culture” in its essentialist guise is therefore a signifier that is very much needed in identity politics, because it offers a seemingly objective grounding for defining those who belong and those who do not. Therefore, problematizing the essentialist understandings of culture also calls into question the naturalness of national identities. The main point of tension that arose in the analysis is the distinction between the “Estonian culture” referring to the state and the “Estonian culture” referring to the nation. While the former incorporates all kinds of cultural activities that take place in the borders of Estonia (i.e. irrespective of its language and other qualities), the latter rests on an understanding of the existence of “authentic” origins that stem from “our” ancestors. While the constitution and central cultural political documents emphasize the importance of the national cultural whole, there are also some cases where strict national cultural approach is problematic. For example, several programmes of regional and minority cultures serve to show that the boundaries of the national culture are indeed blurry, thereby problematizing the entire concept. The relative immunity from nationalist discourse can also be seen in the case of professional culture. These conceptual tensions can be partly explained by the history of the Estonian state that is characterized by strong currents of national identity construction, as well as particularly strong discourses and practices of “othering” in the 1990s (which tried to establish clear continuity between the country that existed between 1918 and 1940, and the one that gained independence in 1991). Nevertheless, the situation has changed somewhat with the new century that saw the establishment of the first official integration programme and renewed interest in so-called minority and regional cultures within Estonia. Therefore, the long-term movement, which is dictated also by several international conventions, seems to be toward understanding and supporting the “Estonian culture” that is bounded by state borders.*est

kultuur, kultuuriline identiteet, võim, kultuuripoliitika, magistritööd

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