There is Only One World or: On the Violence and Beauty of Vienna

For WHW

Prompted by the rise of the right-wing French politician Nicolas Sarkozy, philosopher Alain Badiou in 2007 published a booklet entitled De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom? (translated into English as The Meaning of Sarkozy) which rapidly became his most popular work, and one of the most influential emancipatory political/philosophical pamphlets of the early 21st century. As the title of his concise essay suggests, Badiou looks beyond the figure of the reactionary French minister-of-internal-affairs-turned-president, to analyze the ideology that he – and his counterparts around world – represent. Badiou’s critique of xenophobic present-day politics soon gives way to an unusually concrete recipe for resistance: eight practicable points that the author describes as “neither a program nor a list, but rather a table of possibilities, naturally abstract and incomplete”. It is worth remembering Badiou’s first and last point:

Point 1. Assume that all workers laboring here belong here, and must be treated on a basis of equality, and respected accordingly – indeed honored – especially workers of foreign origin.
Point 8. There is only one world.

Badiou considers this last point so important that he proceeds to devote an entire chapter to it, and also expands on it in his later texts. The dominant politics insists that the unified world of human subjects does not exist; this consequently perpetuates both inequality/exploitation, and our blindness (or tolerance) for inequality/exploitation. Our response, if the world is to be improved (even saved!), should be to insist that we live in a single world of all living beings, while simultaneously embracing all the radical implications that such an ethical stance demands.

Several early (not only communist) thinkers and practitioners originally celebrated cinema as an art form of mass communication capable of cutting across borders, cultures, languages – all sorts of social divisions – and uniting the people of the world in a shared experience of emotion and progressive thought. These aspirations were soon hijacked by the mass demotion of cinema to the ranks of pure commerce, while cinema as an art form continued its development on the (often subsidized) margins, existing to serve primarily the acquired tastes of the bourgeoisie. It was precisely the cultivation of these acquired tastes, combined with nostalgia for the flickering past, that gave birth to the first cinematheques and film museums all over the Western world eighty, seventy, sixty, fifty years ago. Taking this historical arc of cinema’s 20th century development for granted means taking sides with the dominant politics which insists that the unified world of human subjects does not exist. But there are always alternatives to the existing order of things and we can still learn a lot from those early thinkers of cinema.

In 2022, the Austrian Film Museum hosted comprehensive tributes to brilliant artists such as Ennio Morricone, Michael Haneke, Claude Chabrol, Ulrike Ottinger, and Martin Scorsese, all firmly rooted in the cultural traditions of the co-called developed West. But it also screened, in an equally comprehensive manner, works by Rakhshān Banietemad, Želimir Žilnik, Laura Huertas Millán, Márta Mészáros, and Sanja Iveković, all belonging to a different cultural background.

In a recent forum one of our guests asked an important question: Who do you see as your audience? Our answer was unambiguous: The people of Vienna. Upon hearing this another guest, an arts & culture writer, bluntly proclaimed: If you plan to show films to Vienna’s diaspora populations, what do you need us for?

Vienna is an amazingly multicultural city. It is also an amazingly quickly evolving city. According to the city’s official figures, in 2021 almost 42% percent of Vienna’s residents were of foreign origin. The most heavily represented countries of origin, in order: Serbia, Turkey, Germany, Poland, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Croatia, Syria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, Russia, Slovakia, Iran, Macedonia, Czech Republic, Italy, China. If we add all those who inevitably exist outside the system (i.e., are not officially registered), and if we consider the figures that originate abroad (for example: Serbia’s more generous estimate of “their people” in Vienna), the number quickly approaches 50%. In other words: close to half of Vienna’s population is “diaspora”.

The proclamation that the Austrian Film Museum does not need any assistance from the city’s media if it intends to cater to the diaspora is not only arrogant. It is a textbook example of structural racism that apparently fuels a certain strata of Viennese “more civilized” society. The statement reveals a set of reactionary prejudices: The diaspora does not (and does not need to) read cultural pages of newspapers, because the diaspora is a homogenous, uniformed body, united by low education and intelligence (exceptions prove the rule), menial jobs (maintaining and polishing the urban imperial gloss by cleaning toilets, delivering food, driving trams etc.), low income (unless they are criminals), and lack of interest in culture (except for culture in its lowest forms: their own culture). Consequently, any film that will prove interesting to the uncivilized diaspora must be of zero interest to our civilized, full-blooded Viennese readers, who only want to read about “high” culture.

Perhaps even more disturbing than this proclamation is that it is so often accompanied by obliviousness to just how problematic statements like this are. Statistics are invoked to prove such opinions: because, statistically speaking, diaspora does not read specific newspapers, we are well advised to ignore them. Both common sense and history teach us that statistics are a tricky field and an extremely bad excuse for any discriminatory practice. Statistics tend to obscure wider contexts. According to statistics, only men voted in Austria before 1918; women were just probably not that interested in politics back then. Statistics register an even stranger occurrence in 1938, when most – if not all – of the Jewish readers suddenly unsubscribed from Austrian newspapers.

In a predictable turn of events – and as it stereotypically happens when the carefully maintained façade of decency cracks – apologetic, benevolent voices were quickly raised to explain that the statement really meant something else, that I misunderstood. An unacceptable consolation (what matters is what was clearly spoken and heard), but also amusing one, given that it was precisely the city of Vienna that had invented the concept of a Freudian slip, an unintentional slip of the tongue that reveals the inner (subconscious) truth, in this case racism of a kind that should have no place in the 21st century.

Diaspora should, of course, be grateful and quiet. Otherwise, benevolent explanations quickly – and again stereotypically – escalate into a righteous, full-blooded outrage. But still, and even if only as a rhetorical exercise, I find myself wondering how exactly a mindset capable of producing such a statement imagines the order that separates illiterate diaspora from the readers of cultural pages. Does it divide by nationality? Perhaps following the old West-East division? Or maybe the new North-South frontlines, so conveniently already marked by barbed wire on several outer edges of EU? Perhaps it acknowledges only the tertiary and quaternary economic sectors? Does it divide by the level of assimilation?

It all becomes even more absurd when I start thinking about individual faces and names, my diasporic Viennese friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, all of whom I recently met precisely at the Austrian Film Museum. Whose culture does not interest readers of cultural pages of serious newspapers? Who is to be exempt from the cultural discourse? Kevin, who sometimes loves football more than cinema? Mohamed, who was a teacher in a country that no longer exists, but now bakes the best burek in Vienna? Jaleh, who travelled the world as a doctor on humanitarian missions, and now enjoys retirement in this city? Ujjwal, who studies in Vienna, and only comes to the cinema when he can afford it? Ivet, Nataša and Sabina, who will laugh at this story in solidarity, and then tell me an identical story of their own?

Order is violence. And Vienna is a violent city. Luckily it is also a beautiful and quickly evolving city. A city ideally positioned to understand – and even be capable of embodying – Badiou’s notion of one world.

Jurij Meden