International Summer School Seggau 2008
From 28 June until 12 July, 2008, the 3rd Seggauberg International Summer School (ISSS) took place in Seggauberg, a castle and training centre located in the bishopric of Graz-Seckau, near the Slovenian-Austrian border.
On a practical level, the School was similar to the 2006 and 2007 Summer Schools: 79 participants from 26 countries, a programme which included lectures in the morning and seminars on six subject areas (law, science, history, sociology, cultural and media studies) in the afternoon and interesting evening activities, such as special lectures, panel discussions and films. This, the third Summer University in as many years, brings to a close the pilot phase agreed on by the three organisers - the Karl-Franzen University in Graz, the diocese of Graz-Seckau and COMECE. In the autumn, a new cooperation agreement setting out how this successful project should be continued will be negotiated and signed. Some key reflections on this exercise are given below, together with a brief report on ISSS 2008 itself.
"US Europe. Towards a multicultural Continent."
This title was chosen for the very reason that it signifies many things at once. "Us, Europe": never before has the question as to what 'Europe' and 'Europeans' means been asked and discussed with a greater insistence than over the course of recent years. There are diverse and, often, mixed reasons for this. There is a sense of tension between the concept of 'globalisation' and a reawakened regional consciousness, between the 'drive to harmonise' in areas such as the economy, education and culture and the rediscovered interest in that which is one's own, that which is special, as well as regional culture, which many wish to defend at all costs. This European 'us' defines itself by setting itself apart from the other, that which is 'not us'. This becomes particularly apparent when it comes to Europe's relations with the USA - 'US Europe'. The cultural and political lies which bind Europe and the USA are centuries old. The past economic and scientific boom in the US is thanks in no small part to the (unintentional) 'brain drain' out of Europe; both the USA and Europe are guided by political principles such as democracy and the rule of law and at the same time, the way they apply these principles in their day-to-day political workings sets them apart. The Iraq war and the different takes on the situation - albeit not just those held by the USA and the EU, but also by different members of the EU - served to demonstrate this point once again. This similarity in the midst of such striking dissimilarity between the USA and Europe is perplexing and invites further examination. Things start to get interesting when the vision of American political scientists such as Jeremy Rifkin, which once guided the process of European integration, is highlighted to serve as an example and is emphasised as boding well for the future - "It's so much easier for Europe...."- with the hint that Europeans do not always seem to be aware of the advantages of their societal and political model.
The issue of EU/US relations was constantly revisited in all its forms at the ISSS: in the keynote address by Prof. Manfred Prisching, who holds the Chair for Sociology at the Karl-Franzen University and is an expert on the USA, in seminars and discussions with teachers - of which two were from "across the pond"- or in the evening events and encounters between the students themselves. One question cropped up in every discussion, however, in a variety of different forms: the question of identity.
Who are we?
"How do we see ourselves?" and "how do we see other people?" The notion of one's own identity, which vacillates between both questions, was suddenly thrown into sharp focus during the Summer University in a discussion with a group of female Romanian students. At the same time, it serves as an example of how the numerous students from South-East Europe and the new Member States see themselves.
Over the first few days of ISSS 2008, a screening took place of the film Code inconnu by Austrian director Michael Haneke. The film deals with the topic of how people from different cultural backgrounds ('codes') relate to one another and in what difficulties they can become embroiled to the point of committing various acts of violence. In one of the first scenes, a young Frenchman carelessly throws a screwed up piece of paper into the lap of a beggar, which leads a young African man to challenge him and demand that he apologise to the beggar. The scuffle which ensues is brought to an end when the police intervene, but they arrest the beggar because she is residing illegally in the country. She is deported by plane to her home country - in this case, Romania.
After the film, this scene prompted a serious discussion, which really gained momentum on the following day: several female students felt stigmatised by the film. They were of the opinion that it had been chosen to poke fun at Romanian and to label Romania as a 'country of beggars'. Initial attempts to convince them that the fact that the beggar in the film is Romanian had nothing to do with why the film was chosen more or less fell on deaf ears. The girls' self-esteem had taken a heavy blow and they did not want to discuss it.
By chance, the man presenting the next day's lecture used the very same film sequence in his talk on 'hybrid identities'. In the subsequent discussion, the sequence was discussed in detail: those present commented on the behaviour of the two young men, the way the police conducted themselves and the reaction of the public. Speakers also gave their observations regarding film and cultural theory. Yet no one mentioned even once the fact that the beggar in the film is Romanian. No one - other than the Romanian participants - felt this to be of any importance.
In a later discussion with the students, the extent to which their reaction had been affected by how they assumed they were seen by others became clear. As one of the students put it: "Everybody thinks every Romanian is a beggar. We try to do our best and show the world that there is another side to Romania, but no-one is interested in that side. We came here to talk with other graduates in our own age group, and the first thing that's thrown at us is this stereotyped and stigmatising portrayal of Romania." The discussion demonstrated to her the extent to which her self-perception and the manner in which she thought others perceived her had dictated the way she felt about herself and how great was the gap between how you think people feel about you and how they really feel about you.
A permanent task
The Seggauberg International Summer School was founded in 2005 with a view to promoting dialogue between students from old and new EU Member States and countries in South-East Europe and providing them with the opportunity to get to know one another better. Different experiences provoked by past events lead to different takes on the same events. We have yet to shake off the preconceptions of the 'decadent West' and 'backward East'. The task of the ISSS is to talk about this and to try to bridge the divides of the past and find a common language, common projects and a common goal (and, in so doing, also to rediscover our common roots). The aforementioned example shows that we are still a long way from achieving these goals.
Over the next few weeks, discussions will be held on a new framework for the ISSS. Sponsors will be sought out to help fund the ISSS and the programme will be further elaborated. To give an example, the area of 'Ethics and Technology' will be a core component of a future seminar. At the same time, thought is being given as to whether the programme should be opened up and whether interns at the European Parliament should be given the opportunity to apply for a bursary for the ISSS. Europe must reach out to its citizens, especially young citizens, if it wants to survive. This, at least, was the view taken by the many communication papers and strategies produced by the European institutions. With its Seggauberg International Summer School, the church is already demonstrating how to succeed in such a feat.