Mediterranean, Fragmented Images

Maria-Àngels Roque

Editor-in-Chief of Quaderns de la Mediterrània

“The Mediterranean does not exist.” This is how the writer Najat El Hachmi begins her article, although she later asserts that the image of the Mediterranean forms part of an imaginary made up of highly quotidian intangibles. This debate is not new, it was one of the most important among anthropologists, especially British, who worked in the countries around this sea between the 1960s and 1970s.

Between the north and south, the Mediterranean acts as a mirror that resends inverted mutual images. The Mediterranean reproduces a framework of confrontations of opposed powers and ideologies, but it is also a long-lasting laboratory in which the different peoples and civilisations have shared and adapted their beliefs and participatory and solidarity systems. Associating globalisation and difference, and perceiving the space and culture in terms of their diachronic and synchronic values, often involves an ideological conflict for the two shores. Thinking about our tradition and its multiple elements allows us to play down certain visions that are often no more than stereotypes.

Are cultures local? Are they an adaptation to the territory, to ecology? Yes and no. The appropriation and manifestation of a specific culture occur from a specific territory, but the mutations of values or the aspirations of people that take place in these territories can never be dismissed. Conflicts consume a great deal of energy; however, they frequently serve to motivate the changes that adapt the society and resources to a new reality. The contemporaneity of cultures involves witnessing their own mutations.

The view of the Other has a long tradition in the Mediterranean. First, Greco-Latin mythographers and historians, later, Arab geographers and, finally, European Romantic writers and travellers, left their fantastic, realistic or moral observations on the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea long before the weight of “Mediterraneity” fell almost exclusively on the shoulders of academic anthropology. Since the beginnings of the discipline, in the late 19th century, the myths and descriptions of the Mediterranean have been ‒ and continue to be ‒ a source of reflection and comparison, to the point of becoming a classic field in anthropological studies.

Although it is true that a part of anthropology developed alongside colonialism, this is not a discipline to which colonial barbarities can be attributed out of hand: the political doctrine or economy, for example, had far more weight than anthropology itself, which, at least, contributed an important corpus that today is useful for knowing about elements of other cultures that no other discipline would have provided. In any case, anthropology has helped to give a voice to subjected or peripheral cultures. We are not talking only of colonialism; we can apply the same idea to the homogenising, “civilising”, nation state.

It is hard to describe a culture without taking into account otherness, given that the different human groups possess their own cultural specificities. In the promotion of a culture there is a tendency to develop an ethnocentric character, in keeping with the classic concept of centre-periphery in relation to the system or dominant position, as we see in some Greek myths. Within a civilisation there will always be guidelines that provide a “civilising” cohesion. These can involve parities of a religious, legal, political or economic nature.

As the archaeologist Vives-Ferrandiz explains in this issue, neither myth nor fright is exclusive to the modern or contemporary age. During the ten known millennia, mobility has been a fundamental part of the creation of what we know as Mediterranean. The hybridisations, but also violence, are elements maintained in parallel. In this frame of mind, the imaginary of the Mediterranean is also seen, through history, as the catch-all of civilisations that, in a fairly extensive radius, have undertaken new journeys, particularly contributing their culture and memory, at different levels, often expressed through aesthetic elements and through myths, legends and rituals. The British anthropologist Edmund Leach pointed out this communicative part of culture in Culture and Communication (1978): “To understand the ethical rules of a society, it is aesthetics that we must study.” Because although in their origins the details of customs can be historical accidents, for the individuals living in a society these details can never be irrelevant, they form part of the total system of interpersonal communication within the group.

Nietzsche has been a great champion of the observation of cultures from their ethos. In The Birth of Tragedy he examines classical Greek culture and establishes an approach discerning the values manifested in its artistic expression. In this work he describes how, during tragedy, the state of civilisation is suspended: man is identified as the satyr chorus, the original foundation of tragedy, and returns to a state before civilised life, where he coincides, in ecstasy, with the desire for universal life.

The works by artists from different Euro-Mediterranean countries in the exhibition “Between Myth and Fright. The Mediterranean as Conflict”, some of which illustrate the texts of this issue, provide beauty, horror and complexity: fragmented images that today induce us to imagine the Mediterranean as drama. Apollonian and Dionysian elements that, as in the Nietzschean analysis, are imbued with dramatic expression that seeks to be a sociocultural catalyst. Because art, whether literary, visual, audiovisual or cinematographic, creates an empathy that brings us closer to the culture of the Other, to tragedy and to desire, and urges us to think about our own culture, less Apollonian than we thought.   

Although the political and religious frontiers seem rigid, reflecting us in an inverted mirror, the everyday practices make up bridges that help us to recognise, even in apparently distant territories, shared cultural aspects, not necessarily identical, but certainly relevant. The historical motive of the reflection on the Other and the dramatic gaze of the current situation occur when these practices are undermined or included in all-encompassing stereotypes and are not seen as a contribution that can be manifested in the future and offer interesting nuances to the new globalised spaces.