TRANSCULTURAL CONDITION AND THE SEARCH FOR NEW UNIVERSALISM
Transcultural Humanities constitute a long-term research program that is supposed to lead me through diverse levels of reflection and the study of diverse cultural facts to formulate a coherent conception of a specific condition of human breaking through the culturally defined mood of existence into new possibilities of experiencing and communicating, a transculture as a new mood of existence.
The term “transculture” has been recently adopted as a part of the current vocabulary in humanities, even if its assertions and precise meanings may vary from one author to another. “Transcultural” may simply refer to any wandering human or symbolic element migrating from one culture into another. My own definition of this term is nonetheless more radical. Speaking about transcultural condition, I refer to a stage of development in which an individual may liberate himself or herself from a culture understood, pessimistically, as a set of automatisms and filters separating him or her from the unmediated experience of the world and making him or her unable of empathy and communication with fellow human beings placed outside a culturally determined horizon. Such a liberation from culture implies a penetration into a new dimension of experience and communication.
Transcultural condition, understood in these terms, is either an individual, spiritual achievement or an aspiration nurtured against the limitations imposed by a culture. The novel element that distinguishes my approach from the predominating academic practice in transcultural studies is a deeper chronological perspective. Current studies concerning transculture usually speak about recent conditions, determined by the globalizing processes, migrations and similar phenomena treated as peculiar for the contemporary world. I admit this peculiarity of our times, treating the globalized era as a time of emergence in which new frequency and range of symbolic interactions enable the human to make his or her transcultural condition effective. Nonetheless my understanding of transcultural aspiration delves deep into the past in search of the roots and precedents of the new consciousness. Due to this perspective, the transcultural individual is no longer a mere dispatriant, eradicated from a culture and thrown into uncertain and precarious existence. He or she becomes a member of unseen, yet essential community, transforming and perfecting the humanity across time and space.
In my program of research, the inaugural moment of transcultural aspiration and consciousness is located in al-Andalus between IX and mid-XIII century AD. In even broader perspective, the search for new universalism is closely related to the consciousness of unity of Abrahamic monotheisms, in its historical assertion on one hand, and in its more recent tradition related to the modern concepts such as philosophia perennis on the other. No need to add that my concept of transcultural studies goes beyond a mere literary criticism and recuperates the burden of utopia implied by those earlier approaches to spiritual universalism. To grant a transcultural future to the European culture is the lasting stake of this endeavor.
Several book projects should be developed in the framework of this research. Perhaps the most crucial of them is The Condition of Worldliness. Emergent topologies of the aesthetic and intellectual space. The first of the key words that appear in the title, the worldliness, is a redefinition of a concept proposed by Said, his state of "being-in-the-world" that acquires a new meaning. Topology, yet another key word in my vocabulary, refers to an abstract conceptualization of the sphere of potential discursivities. Emergence, a term that appears more often in natural sciences than humanities, refers to a new level of symbolical complexity fostered by new modalities of circulation and exchange, including a particular linguistic tool, the transcultural, universalist, globalized English that I treat as something more than just a natural language.
Thus, I'm interested in a multidirectional exploration of the transcultural domain. First of all, as mentioned above, I'm thinking about specific methodologies that might become useful in the description of this emergent reality. Key concept of topologies opens the perspective of a diagrammatic procedure of mapping the connections or relationships between cultural subjects and facts.
Even if the transculture is often considered as a recent phenomenon, fostered by new, globalized conditions, I'm equally interested in its roots, its precedents that might be found in more or less distant past, such as some fascinating traits of al-Andalus that I mentioned above, but not only. The importance of some early, Andalusian beginnings is crucial if we consider the actuality of the monotheistic debates in the contemporary world. But what I really want to achieve exploring them is a more general perspective on the emergent space of intellectual interaction and intersection of what used to be called East and West. An important point here is not to speak about integration in some kind of global cultural conglomerate, but about the creation of fields of synergistic and "harmonic" tensions that might foster pluralism in stead of reducing it. The Portuguese might enter this panorama as the "crooked timber" of transcultural aspiration, that in Vieira degenerated into a vision of a state. Anyway, the history of culture produces abundant material to be studied from this perspective. In the meanwhile, I see it as a general framework to inscribe several books on which I've been working on in my "Varsovian period": Tesserae, on cultural history of the Mediterranean, Intrusive Spirit of the Desert, on Muslim intellectuals active in the present-day Europe. The concept of transcultural English brings me ideas for a study on Pessoa.
On the other hand, another fascinating problem that appears here for me is the question of unprecedented creation and a vision that might be a final, Utopian result of a topology: abstract, general, and prospective view of empty fields, open to future emergence of works of art or other symbolic activities. The Poetics of the Void and finally the Desert, a volume issued from my seminars given at the "Artes Liberales", may prove to be only the early steps in this direction, in a landscape of Transcultural Humanities that I see as a lifelong challenge.
Beyond 'transculture' and 'transcultural writing': searching for conceptual tools to approach an emergent dimension
This is an account of the personal experience of attempting a theoretical innovation that might lead to a new approach in comparative literature. This experience parts from the concept of 'transculture' proposed by Michail Epstein. The vocabulary of 'transcultural literary studies' has been enriched by Arianna Dagnino et al. On the other hand, I observe that the adjective 'transcultural' becomes too broad, wishy-washy term signifying anything that 'extends through all human cultures' or used to describe diverse pragmatical approaches to communication (Richard Slimbach et al.).
I see the necessity of introducing a specific concept of transcultural dimension in which certain forms of experience and expression break through the cultured condition of man, leading into something that may be regarded as impossible: thinking and speaking beyond any particular cultural codification. Such as hypothetical stage, perhaps finding a precedent in the “mumbling” of a mystic, is nonetheless characteristic for the contemporary subject experiencing a constant “superposition” of numerous cultural codes.
Considering this situation is crucial for our reflection on literary expression. Literature is at the same time a culturally defined codification and a way of breaking through the “received” (culturally transmitted) ways of encoding individual experience. Just to give an example, Joyce's particular idiom in Finnegans Wake may be seen as a “superposition” of codes. I continue borrowing from the language of natural sciences, calling this process an emergence of a new level of complexity and using a topological metaphor of a higher dimension.
At the same time, I follow the tradition established by postmodern philosophy, namely with such terms as 'khōra' proposed by Derrida. I search for a similar term to signify the emergent transcultural dimension in an precise, idiomatic, yet inspiring way. For Derrida, the classical Greek played the role of a “stock vocabulary”. I try to break through the boundaries of Eurocentric humanities, bringing the classical Arabic into the scope of this attempt at theory building.
PROJECTED GRANT PROPOSAL
This preliminary reflection on Transcultural Humanities is supposed to lead to a grant proposal addressed to the European Research Council in 2017. The team is currently in formation, with projected participation of prof. Agata Bielik-Robson and other scholars. The projected working modalities, such as editing a book series, are supposed, among other goals, to foster the emergence of a common intellectual space for the critical reflection concerning monotheism and giving special relevance to its non-orthodox, mystical or apophatic understandings.
ARTES LIBERALES SEMINAR
In practical terms, this project is supposed to become a long-term collective research and experimentation venture. The first step toward building a coherent research group is the seminar "Towards Transcultural Humanities" starting in October 2015. A grant proposal to the European Research Council is planned as a further perspective (2017).
OTHER SEMINARS, LECTURES, PAPERS
Kondycja transkulturowa jako wyznacznik powszechnej przestrzeni literackiej - ujęcie topologiczne, paper presented at the conference "Między dyskursami, sztukami, mediami. Komparatystyka jutra", organized by the Faculty of Polish Studies, University of Warsaw and Polish Comparative Literature Association, Warsaw, 17-19.03.2015. Full version of the essay will be published soon.
"Humanistyka transkulturowa jako szansa innowacji", seminar given at the University of Warsaw on 28th April 2015 in the framework of the cycle "Tradycje i nowe kierunki badań w humanistyce", coordination of the cycle: prof. Alina Nowicka-Jeżowa. Event realized in collaboration with Rafał Zawisza and Ewa Niedziałek.