Blog Post

Polyphonic Peace

The essence of polyphony lies precisely in the fact that the voices remain independent and, as such, are combined in a unity of a higher order than in homophony. If one is to talk about individual will, then it is precisely in Polyphony that a combination of several individual wills takes place, that the boundaries of individual will can be in principle exceeded. One could put it this way: the artistic will of polyphony is a will to combine many wills, a will to the event.

—Mikhail Bakhtin

It is easy to agree on things that have no binding force. All of us imagine a peaceful, cooperative Europe that is open to other cultures and capable of dialogue. We remind ourselves [begruessen - literally, greet] that in the second half of the 20th century, Europe has found prototypical solutions for two problems. The EU presents itself as a form of "governing beyond the national state," that could serve as an example as apost-national constellation. For a long time the European welfare state was also an example for others. At the level of the national state, however, it has been forced into the defensive. But the level of social justice that the welfare state has attained should not be abandoned in any future politics of the taming of capitalism. Why shouldn't a Europe that has solved such enormous problems also take on the challenge of developing and defending a cosmopolitan order on the basis of international law?

—Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida

 

From the recent postmodern history we have seen that the old ways of dealing with violent conflicts through the single state power proved to be in most cases violent and tragic.   In the new multi-polar world of the 21st century, accepting diversity and equality of nations becomes a more important concept.  It is interesting to view this in terms of a new world order where bigger states will not necessarily have the competitive advantage and dominant voice over international affairs.   Thanks to the new century, small nations are being more empowered to gain their voice in international community.

The realities of the post-Cold War period suggest that the old unilateral, imperialist approach is not working any more.  It is a very difficult task to identify the way of progressing in the multi-polar world.  However, it is necessary to find ways to accommodate the interests of multiple Others on the international scene since there are many actors that are in need to have their basic human need for identity.  In order to create Peace Sanctuary a multi-faceted approach is needed, where all the voices have an equal way of expressing themselves.  As the postmodern experience of 1990s and 2000s shows us, a multi-polar world needs multiple voices to be included in its social and political architecture.

Many recent conflicts and wars show this.  The war between my country Georgia and Russia in 2008 has showed us once more that imperialism, militarism and force are not the answers.  People are never going to succumb and they are going to continue to fight.

What I am proposing here as an alternative method to traditional domination-based imperial model is a polyphonic approach.  It is interesting that both Georgians and Russians have something to do with the whole notion of polyphony in arts and now this principle is being applied to their conflict.

In music, polyphony is a textureconsisting of two or more independent melodic voices, as opposed to music with just one voice that is called monophony or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords which is usually called homophony.

Mravaljhamieri - Georgian traditional polyphony is the most significant of all stylistic features of the national musical language that significantly define the originality and expression of Georgian musical tradition.  Georgian folk music attracts the attention of experts for its diversity of forms. In the tradition of Georgian music, all those voices are not necessarily going in the same direction, but they simply co-exist in one harmony.  Those different voices within one song have created some of the most beautiful examples of folk music. 

In literature, polyphony (Russian: полифония) is a feature of narrative, which includes a diversity of points of view and voices. The concept was invented by Russian Philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, based on the musical polyphony.  Bakhtin describes the main characters of Dostoevsky as having very different and often conflicting points of view. However, they create the unique world of poetics without being even dialectical.  There is no universal ideology that drives all those characters—they are all equally independent.  Bakhtin mentions several European authors that have preceded Dostoevsky in having polyphonic discourses such as Dante, Shakespeare, Balzac, but in his words Dostoevsky was the first author who articulated diversity of voices as the condition of life.  This is the time when diversity was not accepted very much.  In the time when Bakhtin wrote his work the world was dominated by two opposing grand narratives of Capitalism and Communism and there was no place for pluralism of ideas.  But Bakhtin proclaimed:  “Dostoevsky’s world is profoundly pluralistic.” (Bakhtin 26)  As opposed to the  dominant dialectic great narrative of the 20th century, Bakhtin saw pluralism and diversity as a way of life coming from Dostoevsky’s poetics.   The difference of polyphony with Hegelian and Marxian dialectic understanding of events is that here not everything is subservient of the main, great narrative of progress, but it exists regardless of it. “The fundamental category in Dostoevsky’s mode of artistic visualizing was not evolution, but coexistence and interaction.”  (Bakhtin 28).  Bakhtin finds the genius of Dostoevsky in seeing the real diversity of the world and not trying to fit it into one particular ideology.   There is no GRAND Narrative, but the voices are co-existing just like in Georgian polyphonic music and there is no domination by one side—in short this is the world.  Contradiction is part of our world and we need to learn to coexist with contradictions and differences.  “...in fact Dostoevsky found and was capable of perceiving multi-leveledness and contradictoriness not in the spirit, but in the objective social world.  In this social world, planes were not stages but opposing camps, and the contradictory relationships among them were not the rising or descending course of an individual personality, but the condition of society.”  (Bakhtin 27)

Multiple voices are in need to be heard at the same time in their own tool of communication speaking in their own language.  This is the challenge of today’s world.  When we see many different identities aspiring for recognition in the 21st century we need to ask the question in the style of Bakhtin—is humanity able to translate the principle of polyphony into the structure of international and interethnic relations?   Galtung gives Switzerland as a multi-lingual democracy as an example of conflict Transcendence (Galtung, 2004).  Indeed Switzerland has been an early model for cohabitation of different ethnic groups with different languages in the same country.  Canada has been another example of at least bi-lingual co-existence though there are some different opinions about this.  In the world of contemporary liberal democracies there are few instances of polyphonic intra-state structures—but as a general principle, homophony is the dominant paradigm in the Western Nation-Building tradition.

How can this example of Dostoevsky’s poetics and Georgian folk music translate in real international relations, since the world is becoming smaller every day?  We as  a humanity are on the challenging road of exploring polyphony in our lives.  It is not easysince it means listening to many opposing voices and accepting them as legitimatebut I believe it is possible and the best example for it so far is the creation of the European Union.   

It is not easy to integrate Derrida’s Differance into social-economic life and furthermore to have it in international relations.  But by the beginning of our century it was done and this fascinating voluntary step is the most positive development of the millennium so far.  Of course, the European Union in its present form is a very recent phenomenon and obviously it is very early to talk about the definite success of this enterprise, but one thing is already obvious—that multi-cultural and multi-lingual approach can work and be applied successfully to the post-nation-state-building process.  EU with its 23 languages is a good example of this.

One of the most important factors for European polyphony is that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) do not sit in national blocks, but in Europe-wide political groups. These include parties such as the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), socialists, liberals, greens and others. Between them, MEPs represent all views on European integration, from the strongly pro-federalist to the openly Eurosceptic.  Here is one very good example of constructive channeling of identities and allocating the center of the dispute in a different place. Like all other EU institutions, the Parliament works in all the 23 official EU languages.  European Union shows the respect for all languages and cultures of Europe, neither of those groups is considered second class.  Respect for the identity of each member is an extremely important aspect of European experiment.

It is also extremely important to see that today the common currency EURO already unites Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.  The Euro-Zone is about to expand even more and this is one more example of polyphony being applied through economic and social policy.  European welfare-state model plus common economic currency has very positively contributed to the creation of post-nation-state identity.  So economic factors are also extremely important in creating a international and inter-ethnic polyphonic structures.

Jacques Derrida and Juergen Habermas identified this paradigm in their famous letter addressing the creation of common European Community in 2003. In it, these two great philosophers put aside their considerable intellectual differences to call for a unified European Patriotism. (Derrida & Habermas, 2003) They were talking about creating of the common European identity.

In their visionary address Habermas and Derrida note, “The EU presents itself as a form of 'governing beyond the national state,' that could serve as an example of a post-national constellation.”   The European Union that was formed after two wars of the 20th century as an economic cooperation sanctuary and today it represents one of the largest Peace Zones of the world.  During the last 60 years (1950-2010), the EU functioned as a sanctuary from ethnic and religious violence where there was no necessity to have borders between different countries.  As a result, a birthplace of nation-statehood became the birthplace of post-nation-statehood.  Instead of hierarchical imperialist models used by different European powers in 19th and early 20th century collaborative and partnership approach became most relevant during the formation of the new union.  In fact, the European Union became a good example of transcending the conflict to collaboration.

Even though there is much work to be done and many serious problems to be solved, the European Union is the best example to follow for the South Caucasian countries and separatist regions.  Since Europe also has a long history of different separatist movements, the EU model appears to be the best so far in dealing with the problem of intra-state conflicts.

When talking in an address to the International Parliament of Writers, the predecessor of ICORN, in 1996, Jacques Derrida talked about achieving the state of cosmopolitan hospitality and the possibility of creating new laws that defend the rights of human beings regardless of their ‘national citizenship’.  “It is a question of knowing how to transform and improve the law, and of knowing if this improvement is possible within an historical space which takes place between the law of an unconditional hospitality, offered a priori to every other, to all newcomers, whoever they may be, and the conditional laws of a right to hospitality, without which The unconditional law of hospitality would be a danger of remaining a pious and irresponsible desire, without form and without potency, and of even being perverted at any moment.”   This challenge outlined by Derrida in the past century is still facing us today.

There are many difficulties on the road to overcome the nation-state induced nationalism and divisions, but European Union is now a shining example of how we can overcome our differences.  I hope that this example can work for some other places and countries including South Caucasus, where I am from. Instead of having constant wars and conflicts, one day we will have peaceful Caucasian Union.

Irakli Zurab Kakabadze's picture
Irakli Kakabadze has been a leading figure in the nonviolent movement for social change in Georgia for more than two decades.  A member of the Civic Disobedience Committee in 1989 and during the Rose Revolution in 2003, he has since been harassed and detained repeatedly by authorities.  He is the author of five books and hundreds of essays in English, Georgian, and Russian. His play Candidate Jokola controversially depicted a love story between a Georgian presidential candidate and an Abkhaz woman. He is also an author of lyrics for “Postindustrial Boys,” and, together with Zurab Rtveliashvili, practices a literary performance style called Polyphonic Discourse.  He taught art and peacebuilding at Cornell University from 2008-2012 and currently teach at the Georgian-American University in Tbilisi, Georgia..