11/30/2015

Transculturality beyond the egalitarian agenda

by Lennart Brand.

In contrast to an understanding of transculturalism that rests on – and indeed celebrates – the idea that globalization causes cultures, nation states, traditions, etc. to blend into each other and to thereby surrender their identities, I shall argue below that transculturality mainly occurs in a transnational sphere superimposed upon, yet largely detached from, those of traditional nation states, their traditions, and their cultures. Pointing out that transculturality increasingly lends itself to being perceived and described, I shall eventually pose the question whether, beyond mere positive description, its emergence can be explained in metaphysical terms.

 

 

 

Lamberto Tassinari (in: Donald Cuccioletta: Multiculturalism or Transculturalism: Towards a Cosmopolitan Citizenship. London Journal of Canadian Studies 17 (2002), p. 8.) describes transculturalism as »a new form of humanism, based on the idea of relinquishing the strong traditional identities and cultures which in many cases were products of imperialistic empires, interspersed with dogmatic religious values.« Tassinari’s view reflects the emancipatory, post-colonial brand of transcultural thinking that was first spelled out by Fernando Ortiz in the mid-20th century and constitutes an attempt to dissolve traditional geographical, cultural, religious, etc. boundaries.

I claim it is wrong to sweepingly equate transculturality with the specific brand of transculturalism advocated by Ortiz, Tassinari, and others. While acknowledging that it has dominated transcultural discourses for many a decade, I nonetheless hold that transcultural approaches are neither limited to this specific tradition of egalitarianism-inspired thought, nor do they necessarily presume the dissolution of existing – national, cultural, religious, etc. – structures. Indeed, I maintain that their main potentials lie, first, in describing developments that occur in a sphere that is by and large detached from that of nationhood and cultural or religious traditions and, second, in identifying values common to man as a species and thus suited to govern where value systems emanating from specific cultural, national, and religious traditions fail to take effect.

 

The transnational sphere constitutes the locus of transculturality

Let us begin with our first claim: that transculturality is inextricably linked to what is commonly referred to as the »transnational sphere«. The concept of the »transnational sphere« is well-established in historiography and the cultural studies, referring to developments dating back to the onset of early modernity or even beyond. What interests us is the form this transnational sphere has assumed in the past few decades.

This form which grew out the specific logics of the globalized economy and the increasingly globalized texture of politics, shows clear-cut characteristics. It has, inter alia:

  • A distinct style of its own as epitomized, for instance, by hotels belonging to global hotel chains, business-class lounges, business restaurants, clubs and the like.
  • A distinct language and terminology: a peculiar brand of English centered upon a cluster of words and phrases derived from and describing economic, political, and some »cultural« patterns and processes (among the latter e.g. Hollywood cinema, football world-cups etc.).
  • Its own institutions (as goes without saying): first and foremost global businesses, to a certain degree supranational political institutions (though that is certainly open to debate), and global NGOs.
  • Its own infrastructure, superimposed upon, and only marginally connected to, the infrastructures of its host countries: such as airports, five-star hotels, car-hire services, and some restaurants, all of which bear virtually no relevance to the daily lives of 99 per cent of host populations, including those of Western countries.

Finally, and most crucially, it has its own inhabitants. The inhabitants of that sphere range from the global nomad entirely holed up inside it – whose live takes place in five-star hotels, business-class lounges, aircrafts, etc. – to the average global businessman whose attempts to keep one foot outside that sphere are increasingly foiled by the latter’s suction power. At the fringes, there are those little helpers operating the machinery of the sphere: waiters, cleaners, receptionists, drivers, etc. who, drawn from the local population, enter and leave that sphere on a nine-to-five basis. Finally there are those accumulating at the bottom of the sphere, underneath all those infrastructures, who neither speak its language nor participate in its style: economic migrants, refugees, and the generally displaced.

 

The transnational sphere is self-contained

Viewing this scenario from a distance, the transnational sphere bears a notable resemblance to that old libertarian dream – a government-less state where society, through processes of spontaneous order, creates those conditions it requires to function in an economically efficient way. Though to some this analogy may be a step too far, the fact remains that the transnational sphere is

(i) By and large self-contained: even though it feeds on nation states and occasionally may even dominate them, it constitutes an approximation to an autonomous socio-political entity, and thus it is:

(ii) Essentially detached from the world of national borders, national cultures, religions, etc.: it does not replace this world – with a jumble sale of bits and pieces looted from the graveyard of deceased nation states and cultures, as has traditionally been assumed – but rather hovers above that world like the mythical city in the clouds.

(This being said, it cannot be doubted that elements of the transnational sphere have for decades crept into cracks and crevices that have begun to open in the surface of that world of nation states, national cultures, and national traditions. This has long been an object of concern to various schools of cultural pessimism. However, it would be too easy to blame this phenomenon on the transnational sphere as though this sphere were some kind of cancer attacking healthy organisms. If the transnational sphere expands into areas formerly held by those traditions, it is not because transnationalism is aggressively expansive – for, as we saw, it is not – but because those traditions have become weak, dwindle, and retreat from where they used to reign. And since the empty spaces thus emerging cannot remain empty – nature’s ‘horror vacui’ coming into effect – those forces that, like transnationalism, remain will fill them. To quote Ernst Jünger: »On altars abandoned demons dwell«.)

 

Transnational man and the emergence of transnational culture

Coming back to our mildly daring analogy between the transnational sphere and a nation state. By definition, a state is the form society gives itself (or, for that matter, is given), i.e. there can be no state without a society, and indeed, above we also found that the transnational sphere is populated by people who – to varying degrees – may be called its inhabitants. With regard to the question from which we set out we may now consider whether those people are more than just solitary atoms haphazardly whirling around in an abstract space without coming into contact with each other. It is evident that they are. Indeed, the transnational sphere came into existence precisely because globalization entailed a specific mode of interaction that transcended not just the national but also the inter-national level, i.e. that is not defined as taking place between people from different national backgrounds, but between people whose national backgrounds are no longer part of the equation – not in an idealistic, do-gooder one-world sense but in solely functional terms, i.e. because the aims those people are paid to pursue are simply unrelated to categories drawn from the nation state.

Where a large number of people – like the inhabitants of the transnational sphere – contrive a mode of interaction not by consciously devising it but by merely acting and thereby discovering viable ways to live and work together, and where this mode of interaction settles and becomes a set of habits, subsequently of customs, the seeds of »culture« are sawn. This is exactly what has been happening over the past decades: in some protracted way, it has become feasible for people dwelling (permanently or temporarily) in the transcultural sphere to coexist and collaborate in ways which had previously been the preserve of members of the same national and/or cultural context. In other words, there are clear indications that something along the lines of a transnational culture is in the offing. Indeed, its outline already becomes vaguely visible, especially in evolving common »ethical« standards which to adhere to is increasingly becoming a prerequisite for fully utilizing the advantages the transnational sphere has to offer.

 

Is there more to transculturality than meets the eye?

Now while it is simple to discern those common practices which, facilitating effective and efficient interaction in the transnational sphere, are manifestations of the transcultural, one important questions remains. While it evidently is interactive practice towards certain ends in specific contexts that brings forth the transcultural, it is much less evident whether this positivist interpretation captures all there is to say, or whether there may be metaphysical issues to be addressed in order to explain transculturality comprehensively. In other words, is there more to transculturality than just behavioral patterns? Is there something beyond utility underlying those patterns, something emanating from the human condition that makes those patterns possible in the first place? One affirmative answer to this question can be found in the world-ethos theory as espoused by Hans Küng. In a separate article we shall attempt to offer an alternative answer to the same question by drawing on latter-day interpretations of the Aristotelian idea of a telos immanent in nature.

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