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Imagining the Transcultural

Transculturating for Wordliness

English version
Stephanos Stephanides
p. 18-19

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1When I was a student in Britain many years ago, as a migrant out of language and out of place, a “Hellene” and a “post-colonial Cypriot”, I was troubled by the linear periodization of my literary studies, which led me from Beowulf to T.S. Eliot and left me asking myself where I belong – looking for the chance connections and turbulence that brought me into that classroom. In the too easy alignment of language, culture, and nation, I was always wanting to move sideward and across, above and below. While my comparatist impulse took me to Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian studies, I found the same linear periodization of Spain and Portugal and peripheralization of the extra-European space as I did in the study of English literature. The subsequent decades led to transformation in academic literary studies with a new emphasis on such issues as the postcolonial and the transcultural. If I have found a space in academia, it is because of the delinquent theorists and writers who brought about this turn to horizontality opening up new possibilities for the diasporic, migrant and hybrid subject. Nonetheless, new hegemonies and orthodoxies arise as we move to a new canon and a new world order that brings with it new forces of singularity, homogenization, technological rationality in an increasingly global experience, in supranational states, and this brings new challenges for the transcultural.

  • 1 Fernando Ortiz, [Trans. Harriet de Onís], Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, Durham, Duke Unive (...)

2The idea of transculturation designates a space where diverse forces and influences cross that may derive from the nation state, nature, or the market. As a disorderly flow of influences caught between state regulation and cultural desire, transculturation in itself is neither to be celebrated nor condemned. It may impose closure and fix identity, and declare the nation state to be adequate to that identity or alternatively remain open, identity unfixed, establishing a flow between diverse groups neither coerced nor constrained by the nation state. While transculturation seems to have gained momentum in the era of postmodernity and in an age of globalization, it is worth recalling that the term was coined by Fernando Ortiz, the Cuban writer and anthropologist, in the 1940s.1

3As the projects of modernity and colonialism have been closely connected, Ortiz’s notion comes as a post-colonial negotiation of Cuban culture autonomy in modernity. It is noteworthy that a mode of aesthetic expression we associate nowadays with postmodernism was articulated by writers within the context of colonial cosmopolitanism – not only in Latin America but elsewhere -and seems to anticipate a postmodern moment of the periphery when the intelligentsias outside the West mastered modernity to turn it into something of their own.

4Peripheral modernities diverge from European prototypes according to the spatio-temporal specificities of individual societies. One may therefore speak of multiple modernities both within and outside Europe. Usually the idea of the centre refers to the geopolitical status of the West where modernity began, but the periphery never shared with the Centre the specific pre-modern condition that would shape the way the peripheries developed, and there is not simply a linear movement from modernity to post-modernity. Different areas of the periphery do not share the same trajectory and culture has played a diverse role in cementing the bonds of the nation-state or served as a catalyst for its transformation. Translation and colonialism have played a significant role in the emergence of Indian vernaculars as literary languages such as we see in the example of the so-called Bengali renaissance. In its Caribbean and Latin American context, the transcultural is linked to the processes of creolization in language and culture. The idea that modernity in the periphery can only be a copy subtends Latin American modernismo itself. We find this in the stance of refusal or “anarchistic aesthetic” of a poet such as Ruben Dario, which may be seen as a strategic exodus from the mundane reality that the State conditions, and also in the use of translation as parody and pastiche as constant decentring that we find in Borges, Brazilian antropofagismo, or Cuban criollismo. Transculturation thus describes history as it takes place behind the back of the state. The coining of the term by Ortiz seems to belatedly name a process that had already been part of the Caribbean and Latin American modernist artistic and intellectual imaginary in its effort to reclaim the values that precede the State (colonial or postcolonial) or found anew values outside its field of influence.

5Artists and Intellectuals have played key roles at the intersection of culture and state, and the politics in the translation and mediation of cultural demands and desire. However this role is not unambiguous and the transculturation and translation process is in no way simple or transparent. Moreover, there are numerous ways by which artists and the intelligentsia appropriate resources to generate and sustain distance from culture and state as they may veer between a bohemian condition and a Mandarin status. Are they agents or transculturation or do they articulate its effects ? To what extent are they able to disinvest or distance themselves from the State and State culture in a quest for the ideal of pure autonomy ? The State itself through its academic institutions, museums and learned societies confirms the virtue of their artistic and intellectual labour. The neo-liberal State cedes some discursive legitimacy to intellectuals and artists, but rewards the services of technocrats rather than intellectuals who will make a stand or bridge between State and people.

6While transculturation may have been a thorn in the side of the nation state and nationalism, in an age of global and trans-national economy and politics, one has to ask which State or state. Recent scholarship often claims the distinction between globality and worldliness (as implied in Heidegger’s idea of the worlding), reclaiming for the latter the world making function in human experience and intentionality, historical contingency, and the relentless sensuality of nature. In contrast to the inexorable movement of capital, it is worth returning to the attempts of modernist artists and intellectuals to achieve autonomy through transculturation. If the term is often appropriated by the globalization process, we must reclaim it for the world and the worldly text.

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Notes

1 Fernando Ortiz, [Trans. Harriet de Onís], Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, Durham, Duke University Press, 1995.

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Référence papier

Stephanos Stephanides, « Transculturating for Wordliness », Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化, 1 | 2006, 18-19.

Référence électronique

Stephanos Stephanides, « Transculturating for Wordliness », Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化 [En ligne], 1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 13 septembre 2009, consulté le 23 octobre 2017. URL : http://transtexts.revues.org/161 ; DOI : 10.4000/transtexts.161

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Auteur

Stephanos Stephanides

Stephanos Stephanides has a personal and academic interest in dislocation, migration, Diaspora, memory and forgetting. Having spent his childhood in Cyprus, he attended the University of Wales at Cardiff, and lived briefly in Greece and Spain, before spending seven years in Guyana, and seven in Washington DC. He returned to Cyprus in 1992 to join the founding faculty of the University of Cyprus where he is now Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of English and Comparative Literature. Critic, scholar, poet, and translator, his many publications include Translating Kali’s Feast: the Goddess in Indo-Caribbean Ritual and Fiction (2000).

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