In search of non-hegemonic universalism(s) and the global idiom(s) of transcultural literary expression
Synopsis of my research
One of my aims in the domain of comparative literature is to study the motivations and strategies used by the writers who, in the contemporary conditions of the globalization, aspire to transcend their inscription in the local culture. They try to transcend the boundaries of tradition and servitude that binds them – and limit them – to their ethnic or national context, wishing to participate in a larger, universalist sphere of communication. At the same time, they often strive to bring forth crucial elements of their original cultural heritage, making it accessible beyond the local frontiers. This is why I speak about the search for a new, “non-hegemonic” universalism, essentially different from the one deconstructed by the post-colonial studies. I play on the ambivalence of the English word “cultured”, connotative of what is learned in the process of cultural training; at the same time, the “cultured condition” constitutes a hindrance in the transcultural communication; this is thus a boundary to transgress through creativity.
This research is based on an extensive selection of texts collected worldwide; for this selection I partially rely on my previous experience and various research travels I have realised, striving to acquire books that are not visible in the dominant, English-speaking circuits of translation and literary studies. The texts I am searching for, originally created in a diversity of geographical contexts, fulfil a set of common criteria: 1). they attempt to address non-local readers, often in search of solidarity beyond the local situations of oppression, material shortage, mental limitations inherent not only to the colonial and post-colonial circumstances, but also to the oppression inherent to the traditional cultures, their gender structure, etc.; 2). they establish intertextual links or incorporate elements of heritage created in distant geographical and/or cultural locations in order to enlarge their expressive, intellectual or spiritual horizons; 3). they often transmit the key elements of minor or ultra-minor heritage to the global readers, using complex translingual strategies of writing; 4). in many cases, they rely on mystifications or hoaxes in order to hide or encrypt the locatable origins, often in protest against their automatic inscription in pre-defined national literatures and cultures.
Methodologically, this project is based on the concept of transculture and transcultural writing (as defined by Wolfgang Welsch, Arianna Dagnino, Mikhail Epstein and others), as well as new, non-Eurocentric currents in comparative literature (Gayatri Spivak, David Damrish, Emily Apter and others). It takes into consideration the literary expression of global migrations as well as the strategies of the so called transindigenous writing (literary expression of ethnic groups that had never achieved decolonization, such as Maori writers in New Zealand, Native American, Native Siberian in Russia, etc.). In order to establish a new diagram of global connections, replacing the traditional map of national literatures, visual modalities of thinking and hypothesis formulation will be employed, according to the inspiration of comparativists and visual artists, such as Franco Moretti and Nikolaus Gansterer.
BACKGROUND AND SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS RESEARCH
Following the hypothesis of “dissolution of cultures” (Auflösung der Kulturen), proposed by Wolfgang Welsch (1992), recent humanities often deal with contents travelling between cultures without belonging entirely to any of them. New currents of literary creation, experimenting with transcultural and even translingual expression, form a challenge for the traditional schools of reading and literary criticism, not only those using the lenses of national literature or working with the Bloomian notion of universal canon, but also such currents as the post-colonial theory. Apparently, new writers active in various parts of the globe are determined to break free from the servitudes of their historical and geographical condition (including the post-colonial one), trying to address the readers in a common, global sphere of meaning, under new conditions of symbolic equality and unrestricted access to the humanity's variegated heritage.
Some of those phenomena are more visible than others. English-speaking researchers, such as David Damrosch, could promptly put in the limelight some authors and works transgressing, in a striking way, the frontiers of local or national literary systems, treating foreign contents as their own, legitimately inherited tradition. The case of a Tibetan writer bringing forth new adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as well as that of a Caribbean author (Dany Laferrière) claiming to be a Japanese writer, have become well-known symbols of this new movement of crossing the frontiers in all directions. Quite similar strategy has been used by the Angolan writer Agualusa who has given, in his novel Nação Crioula, a new lease of life to the 19th century Portuguese literary figure of Fradique Mendes (originally created by Eça de Queirós and a group of his friends in Cenáculo). On the other hand, Emily Apter (2013: 330-334) analyses the case of Manituana (2007), a novel authored by a group of Italian writers who signs itself Wu Ming (a pseudonym signifying “no names” in Chinese). As Apter claims, their aim is not only to explore the anti-individualistic and dispossessive strategies of the “anonymous” writing, addressing the issues concerning the post-11th September America as well as the entire world, but also to resist the automatic classification as “Italian” literature.
The particularity of my project is, among other aspects, that of making a good use of my rather exceptional polyglot talents (I can read in about 20 languages) to enlarge the focus of the dominant English-speaking literary studies. At the same time, I would like to attempt a systematisation of this new literature, answering in a comparative way the double question: 1). why should the writers transgress the limits of their locatable cultural position in order to pretend they are somewhere else or quite radically “nowhere”, in no recognizable locus whatsoever, and 2). how do they attempt to manage such a radical de-localization, trying, at the same time, to get through to the global reading public. In order to answer these questions in a more reliable and exhaustive way than it has been done till now, I would like to explore as many minor and ultra-minor texts as possible, paying special attention to those absent in the mainstream market of literary translation and global criticism. By ultra-minor writing I understand the attempts at crossing the threshold of orality and writing. The native writers usually struggle against such circumstances as the non-existence of a local reading public, as well as imminent danger of linguistic and cultural dissolution. The well-known global phenomenon of language death may be partially addressed by the development of translingual literary expression, transmitting to the global readers the idiosyncratic key concepts of the dying tongues, enveloped in the narrations expressed in any of the major languages.
The writers who contribute to the creation of a new, global sphere of communication, exploring not only their own cultural heritage, but feeling fully entitled to the universal legacy of all the humanity, do not belong to nations and cultures that might be classified as central, dominant or hegemonic. On the contrary, they create their universalistic literature from the positions that may be seen as minor and peripheral. The poetic volume Zen limites (2016) by Filinto Elísio, an author from Cape Verde archipelago, may be cited as an example of such a creative appropriation of universal traditions, not only such as Buddhism Zen, but also such as the legacy of Omar Khayyam. Certainly, since 19th century, the poetic paradigm of the Rubaiyyat had been repeatedly explored outside the original context of Islamic Central Asia; this phenomenon was due, in the first place, to the appropriation of the poet in the dominant, colonial, British intellectual environment. Nonetheless the fact that this legacy is claimed in minor contexts such as Cape Verde is a new phenomenon. What is more, it ushers us into the new era of global connectivity, rather than “delinking” or decolonial options as defined by Walter Mignolo (2000, 2011).
On the other hand, this construction of a new sphere of communication consists not only in the claims of minor and ultra-minor actors claiming the contents universalized by the former dominant traditions as their own. Even more crucial aspect of the new literature studied in this project is the introduction of new contents into the global sphere of communication, namely the contents issued from minor and ultra-minor cultures, that, so to speak, bring us new Khayyams of their own. Many of those cultures used to express themselves only through orality, often in languages that are currently under serious threat of extinction. The new literary movement often qualified as transindigenous (cf. Allen 2012) fosters the preservation and divulgation of these legacies, enriching our common understanding of the human.
To put it shortly, the aim of my project is to study the strategies used by the writers who aspire to transcend their cultural inscription. The study of such phenomena clashes against many traditional views and concepts in the humanities, even against such basic presuppositions as the intra-cultural construction of meaning. In comparative literature, this new reality leads not only to the necessity of profound deconstruction of the traditional concept of national literature, but also, what is more crucial, to the necessity of elaborating new tools and conceptualizations for the description of the translocal nature of the new literary phenomena. The study of the translocal mechanisms of constituting the meaning permits to grasp the human potential of transgressing the limitations imposed by the cultural inscription. In current humanities, there is a need of creating a new language adapted for the description of transcultural phenomena. The first step in this direction has been made by Mikhail Epstein in his attempts at defining the “apophatic” aspect of transculture (cf. Epstein 2009). Less radical attempt at creating a vocabulary of transcultural literary studies has been proposed by Arianna Dagnino (2015). In my project, I will continue this work toward the creation of a new terminology, dealing with, among others, such problematic concepts as universalism; I will reflect on and discuss other possibilities, such as the notion of “pluriversalist” sphere of communication. (Term "pluriversalist" has been used, among others, by Walter Mignolo (2011); the aim of introducing such a neologism is to severe the link with the concept of universalism, considered as negatively charged, obsolete and definitively deconstructed by the post-colonial school. This is also the reason why I stress the non-hegemonic aspect of the new universalism, reinvented from the peripheries, that is the object of my research.)
At the same time, I play on the ambivalence of the English word “cultured”, connotative of what is learned in the process of cultural training, that constitutes , at the same time, a boundary to transgress through transcultural creativity. In my former publications (Lukaszyk 2018), I proposed the term “cultured reading”, referring to the schematic, ossified paradigm of dealing with alien texts, causing a partial blindness to their meanings, acquired through an excess of monocultural academic training. In my project, I propose to deconstruct the “cultured condition” created by a certain kind of professional comparative criticism. (I treat this problem as larger and more generalized than just the Eurocentrism of comparative literature, exposed by Gayatri Spivak).
In parallel to this search for new concepts, I would also like to engage into an experimental visual practice inspired by the ideas of “graphs, maps and trees” proposed by Franco Moretti (2005), as well as the project launched by the Austrian artist Nikolaus Gansterer (cf. Gantserer et al. 2011); this approach is also connected to older attempts at introducing the visual modality of thinking into the humanities (cf. Guattari 1989). The “dissolution of cultures” announced by Welsch (1992) leads to the emergence of complex diagrams of connections that transgress and transcend the “map” of national literatures connected to territories and languages spoken in those places. The de-localization of the new literature requires a new distribution of texts in a metaphorical, symbolic space. Its connection to the physical map of the world is a subtle, problematic issue that I will address through visual strategies of “drawing a hypothesis”, elaborated in the multidisciplinary project coordinated by Gansterer (2011).
Allen, Chadwick, Trans-indigenous. Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Apter, Emily, Against World Literature. On the Politics of Intranslatability, London – New York, Verso, 2013.
Casanova, Pascale, La République mondiale des lettres, Paris, Seuil, 1999.
Dagnino, Arianna, Transcultural Writers and Novels in the Age of Global Mobility, West Lafayette, Purdue University Press, 2015.
Dagnino, Arianna, Transcultural Writers and Transcultural Literature in the Age of Global Modernity, “Transnational Literature” 2012, vol. 4, no 2.
Damrosch, David, What Is World Literature?, Princeton – Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2003.
Epstein, Mikhail, Transculture. A Broad Way Between Globalism and Multiculturalism, “The American Journal of Economics and Sociology” 2009, no 1.
Epstein, Mikhail, The Transformative Humanities, A Manifesto, New York – London, New Delhi, Bloomsbury, 2012.
Gansterer, Nikolaus et al., Drawing a Hypothesis. Figures of Thought, Wien – New York, Springer, 2011.
Guattari, Félix, Cartographies schizoanalytiques, Paris, Éditions Galilée, 1989.
Mignolo, Walter, Local Histories / Global Designs. Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000.
Mignolo, Walter, The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Global Futures, Decolonial Options, Durham – London, Duke University Press, 2011.
Moretti, Franco, Graphs, Maps, Trees. Abstract models for a literary history, London, Verso, 2005.
Spivak, Gayatri, Death of a Discipline, New York 2003.
Spivak, Gayatri, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Cambridge, Mass. – London, Harvard University Press, 2012.
Welsch, Wolfgang, Transkulturalität: Lebensformen nach der Auflösung der Kulturen, Paderborn, Fink, 1992.
Comparative Literature: a personal stance
The aspiration of comparativism has been accompanying me since an early stage, creating a primary motivation for a multilingual competence that even today, in our post-philological times, is still regarded as indispensable basis for any serious researcher in this domain. It was also at an early stage - participating in "Mestrado em Literatura Comparada" at the University of Lisbon - that I got an initiation into comparative methodologies (if they've ever existed). The vastness of this adventure appeared to me as extremely tempting. Nonetheless initially I practiced it only for my own, private pleasure. On the other hand, my concept of comparativism was never reduced to the perspective of literature. It was rather a traversal concept applying to a range of cultural phenomena.
My contribution to comparative literature is closely related to its reemerging, planetary concept. Gayatri Spivak, who announced the death of the discipline in the 90ties, understood it mainly as a death of an Eurocentric paradigm. The new comparativism that reappears after the turn of the millennium is thus radically de-centered.
Personally, I don't see the comparativism in this double perspective of rupture and reemergence. In my main, non-Eurocentric perspective of integrating East and West, I conceive myself as someone who gives continuity, and hopefully a fulfillment, to such concepts as that of "grammars of creation" once sketched by George Steiner. This personal stance is supposed to reflect not only a project of erudition, but also a double belonging and inscription into overlapping cultural threads of tradition that I'm supposed to integrate.
There is one, perennial question related to comparative literature: the reason and the legitimacy of any act of comparing. Specially if my temptation has always been to compare phenomena that other people saw as incomparable. Nonetheless, as I considered closely various objections that have been raised, I reached the conclusion that their nature, in most cases, either ethnocentric or ideological. I started thus to consider that any claim to treat anything as "beyond comparison" is essentially illegitimate. The universal tertium comparationis, on the other hand, is simply man and the unity of the human condition, and beyond it, the unity of bios, the living life that make us comparable to a range of other beings.