04/29/2016

Interrelated? Transculturality and Transnationality

by Lennart Brand.

On November 30th, 2016 I published a little piece on this blog which constituted a cautious attempt to take the slightly dated, Marxist-inspired, mid-20th-century idea of transculturality – which had since informed most transcultural discourses – beyond its egalitarian roots. Severing the notion of transculturalism from those roots appeared imperative to me for three reasons. First, being ideologically charged, it would be difficult to employ the old interpretation of transculturality in ideologically neutral contexts such as academic research. In my view, this underlying contradiction has been a weakness in many an academic approach to transculturality in decades past. Second, that old notion of transculturality is too narrow to help interpret phenomena as vast as recent globalization processes. The scope of an approach devised more than half a century ago to events that then were only in their infancy cannot possibly be sufficient now that things have progressed the way they did. Third, and more generally, the topicality and applicability of a mid-last-century approach to something that really got off the ground only in the last two or three decades (with the onset of the world-wide web and everything it entailed, cheap air travel etc.) is necessarily limited.

 

An alternative concept of transculturality

The old notion of transculturality essentially implied that the traditional world and its distinctions were to be levelled and eventually superseded by a one-size-fits-all quasi-global culture: a frankly nightmarish One-World dystopia evoking grim Huxleyan images. In contrast to this notion I proposed to introduce a distinction between, on the one hand, the transcultural sphere and, on the other hand, the traditional world where national borders, customs, and mindsets as well as religious affiliations and inherited value systems continue to exist. For one thing, to assume that the traditional world is being swallowed-up by some vague transcultural entity taking its place is both extremely bold and not sufficiently borne out by empirical evidence. For another thing, to remain valid, the notion of transculturality does not require such far-fetched and purely speculative assumptions. Indeed, by introducing that distinction between the »cultural« and the »transcultural« spheres which coexist on different planes, barely touching each other, we can retain the basic idea of transculturality without making any – necessarily hypothetical – predictions as to the long-term fate of the traditional world. The »transcultural« sphere, being brought forth by globalization, exists above (or besides) the »cultural« sphere and, though feeding on it, does not compromise the latter’s integrity, much less does it depend on the latter’s demise.

 

Where transnationality comes in – and why

One question I have frequently been asked is how transculturality and transnationality relate to one another: whether I use those two terms interchangeably and thus at random; or whether they constitute two sides of the same coin; or, indeed, whether they are really two entirely distinct concepts. This is quite an important question that I should like to try to answer.

To begin with, I certainly have not used those two terms randomly. One ought never to use any words randomly, least of all complex ones. Also I would deny they are two sides of the same coin, for that would mean they are merely two expressions of the same thing, i.e. that they are essentially the same thing – which they are not. Indeed, I claim transnationality and transculturality are two distinct concepts which, however, cannot be considered independently from one another.

So what is the transnational sphere? I would argue that the transnational sphere comes about when and where structures emerge whose specific mode of existence is not related to any specific nation, culture, mindset, religion etc. Such a structure may be a unit of a globally operating organization (or this organization as a whole, though for one or several of its units to be transnational it is not necessary for the whole organization to be thus); or an international airport, hotel, restaurant etc.; or a university, academy, think-tank etc.; or even a religion or an ideology. All of the above – and many more – taken together, constitute the transnational sphere as I tried to discuss it in my previous essay. So why – given that this transnational sphere can be so neatly described – would I assert that transnationality cannot be considered independently from transculturality?

Well, evidently this transnational sphere in itself is an entirely abstract concept, something that cannot exist materially in the real world. In the real world there is no such thing as a »structure«: all there is is people interacting in certain ways to certain ends. A »structure« is but an auxiliary construction, an academic model that helps us understand what is going on within the bustle of humanity. But of course without that bustle of humanity there would be nothing that could possibly go on. An airport without people is not an airport but just an arbitrary building; neither is a university without people a university, and so forth. For a university to be a university, it takes people (within or without this building that carries a plate saying »University«) who interact with a view to teaching and research and whatever else may go on in a university. Now, while this may be a trivial thing to say, the implications are possibly less trivial. For what results from people interacting – no matter what people and to what end – is indeed: culture. Individuals interacting within an institution generate an institutional culture; individuals interacting within a nation, a national culture; and individuals interacting within a transnational sphere, a transnational culture, transforming the abstract transnational sphere into the concrete and very real transcultural sphere. In short: since in the real world the transnational sphere exists only through people interacting, and since any such interaction engenders culture, the existence of the (abstract) transnational sphere necessarily entails the existence of the (concrete) transcultural sphere. The former cannot be without the latter.

 

There is no transculturality without transnationality – and vice versa

Yet neither can the latter be without the former: we are unable to conceive of the transcultural sphere without in some way presuming the existence of a transnational sphere. This is because the transcultural »substance« requires the transnational »form«, or rather, framework. There can be no institutional culture without the institution, no national culture without the nation, no transcultural without the transnational. More specific: though the university is constituted by individuals interacting towards in a certain way to a certain end, thereby creating both academic culture in general and the culture of a particular academic institution, neither would be conceivable without putting that abstract notion, »the university«, first. Equally, though the transnational sphere becomes actual reality through people’s interaction within it which in turn establishes the transcultural sphere, the latter cannot be understood without taking the transnational sphere at least implicitly for granted. Thus the abstract concept is indispensable for us to gain an understanding of the real-life phenomenon it refers to. This suggests that the abstract concept may actually be »real«, too, albeit in a sense different from the reality of the transcultural sphere. Indeed, that something is abstract does not mean it does not exist – it just does not exist materially in isolation. This is what I referred to when above I stated that transculturality and transnationality are two distinct entities which are inextricably linked and have to be thought together.

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