Theoretical Approaches to Transculturalism: Evolution of the Term, Problems of Demarcation and their Relevance in Third Millennium Discourses

Author di Dagmar Reichardt e Igiaba Scego

Evolution of the term

Transculturalism is a term to be epistemologically associated with other “-isms” that defines, generally speaking, both plural lifestyles that have always existed and the current lifeworlds (i.e. the “reality of life”) as today’s sociocultural spaces, all relating to the crossroads between cultures, disciplines, and globalized societies. Amongst the definitions often associated with it — taken from Cultural Studies, Philosophy, and/or Sociology — the following should be specifically mentioned: nomadism (Deleuze, Guattari 1980), postcolonialism (Said 1978), hybridity (Bhabha 1994), and late postmodernism (Welsch 1999).

Introduced on a terminological level during the 1940s as a neologism coined by the Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz, the umbrella term transculturalism is, philosophically speaking, still being defined and systematized, which entails both an aesthetic and sociological crossover concept. In his study in the Spanish language, Ortiz begins with the lexeme transculturación (Engl.: ‘transculturation’) in an attempt to move beyond the idea of aculturación (Engl.: ‘acculturation’) that dominated colonialist and racist thought in the early Twentieth Century.

In the 1990s — and, therefore, at the height of the postmodern age — Ortiz’s concept is taken up again and reinterpreted in a constructivist manner by the German philosopher Wolfgang Welsch. Based on Ortiz’s idea of “transculturation”, Welsch introduces his concept that is philosophically emphasized and heightened on a theoretical level by Transkulturalität (Engl.: ‘transculturality’; Reichardt, Moll 2018, p. 17), accentuating its phenomenological character based on a shift from one type of culture to another that had already occurred. Turning to the metaphor of a net-like design, Welsch (Welsch 2002) reveals not only the interweaving between cultures in the digital era, but also a new sociocultural status quo due to accelerated mobility and to the rapid exchange of media information in the industrialized world of the 21st century.

In 1991, shortly before Welsch’s seminal works about transculturality were published, there was attempt to launch the Transcultura project (Le Pichon, Caronia 1991), which Umberto Eco supported with an introduction, proposing the locution transcultura to direct academic attention towards the concept of an alternative Anthropology that finds, in the reciprocal knowledge and influence between different cultures, a critical manner of moving beyond traditional culture. The attempt to “construct a network of alternative viewpoints” (Le Pichon, Caronia 1991, p. 8; transl. from Italian in Engl. is ours), though, was not taken into account, if not marginally.

Problems regarding demarcation: transculturalism vs. multi- and interculturalism

Nevertheless, in a globalized world in which the digital revolution is still in its infancy and the postmodern era is at risk of slowly dissolving if not in a collective precarious state then at least in an uncertain future, we live in societies made up of various levels, in which differences cohabitate and clash: where those who are hosts coexist alongside those who are hosted in a tight-knit network of relationships. In order to define these mixed cultures, for many years we have talked about multicultural societies, a term that portrays, but does not define, said societies. In fact, multiculturalism is to be understood as the simple coexistence of the different cultures amongst themselves in a mosaic-like form (such as, for example, the Anglophone and Francophone communities in Canada). But, over time, Cultural Studies, as well as other areas, have come to realize that the expression multiculturalism is not sufficient in order to illuminate the complexity of the existent. This is why the term interculturality soon appeared — that is, interculturalism, interculture, and derivatives — in order to design an approach that was inspired by multiculturalism, but also aimed, in a certain sense, to move beyond it.

In this sense, interculturalism is a step after multiculturalism, were not only is there the coexistence of cultures amongst themselves, but acceptance and dialogue between two parties is reached. Interculturalism, however, does not foresee, although it can exist, an active exchange between a group of participants, that is, an interaction or a ‘polylogue’ that aims to programmatically include many interlocutors as participants in social and public discourses. The two concepts — multi- and interculturalism — have so showed that the term culture still holds, within itself, the lines of demarcation that actually show the confines between one cultural entity and another. Culture, understood as a single, monolithic, impermeable block, seems, thus, inadequate in terms of multiplicity: it would, at best, imply, a group of cultures that coexist, but only in a socially distant manner.

Transcultural methodology

In reality, observing cultural phenomena more closely, we can confirm that these monolithic blocks are just abstractions, and that the transitions between one culture and another, however, make up the norm. Therefore, at this point, especially in the area of Cultural Studies, it was necessary to form a new definition to depict the reality that had gradually taken shape as globalization became more intense. That is, it was necessary to find a word that clearly showed the traversing, the intersections, the increasingly tightly-knit interdependencies, the junctions, the reciprocal influence of individual and collective behaviors, and the spaces in between, that is, a word that indicated the interstices on the verge of extinction. A concept, in other words, that moved past the polarity of previous terms (terms, it must be stated, of vital importance in order to grasp the presence of the difference) and finally embraced the complexity of the existent. Also, since the terms that still presented a manifest polarity, such as multi- and interculturalism, they were used, sometimes and in certain periods, to illustrate negative sentiments and ideological positions that, in extremis, regarded these differences as the ultimate evil. A new, more neutral definition was needed, one that not only showed difference, but also indicated the interchange between differences, dissolving the dialectic between identity and alterity in a composite or in a tertium quid. And this is when the prefix ‘trans’ was applied to the concept of culture; ‘trans’ has always indicated a passage, a change, a traversing and an overcoming through osmosis. In a geographical sense, ‘trans-’, not by chance, often indicates a ‘beyond’ (for example, in the attributes ‘trans-Saharian’, ‘transalpine’, ‘transatlantic’ etc.). In short, something different that is proposed not only as new, but as a regenerative, innovative and reformative force of the global. A term that transforms and transgresses.

Fernando Ortiz, transculturation and hybridities

Feeling this need especially, in the 1940s, in the area of several studies on Afro-Cuban culture, the term transculturation, as previously mentioned, had been born: Ortiz was an anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, traveler between the American continent and the European one, and a profound and prolific expert on Afro-Cuban culture. In his book Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (1940; Engl. transl.: Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, 1947), Ortiz not only theorizes how cultures can converge and coexist, but also shows how interdependent they are, and how they can, on this basis, blend together. It is from that moment that, in Anthropology, it is observed how the cultures that were once subaltern — minorities or not — adapt themselves to those that were historically dominant. The aforementioned process, indicated with the term acculturation or cultural assimilation — during which the subaltern cultures were passively absorbed by the dominant ones — in Ortiz’s version, said process is charged with action. The other culture is not drawn from in a sterile manner, but in a creative one. One is not transformed into the other passively, but a multilateral, cultural dialogue is woven with the other in such a way that the synergetic effect of these multiple interconnections leads to transcultural transformation.

Ortiz connected this approach to various practical aspects, which he considered concretely realized in Western history, politics, and culture, and that he himself, though maintaining an appropriate critical distance, experienced daily on the island of Cuba. With his research, he wished to be able to awaken a resilient consciousness in his community and modernize Cuban society, aiming towards sociocultural renewal, based on in-depth knowledge regarding not only history, economics, and legislation, but also Anthropology, Musicology, and Ethnology. His reasoning permitted the construction of the concept of transculturation (Ortiz) first, and of transculturality (Welsch), later. In fact, in areas of study in which interactions amongst peoples, especially in terms of the dichotomy dominating-dominated were examined, like in the case of the colonial world — a case illustrated in a paradigmatic manner by Frantz Fanon in Peau noire, masques blancs (1952) in the fifties — transculturality allows for a better understanding of how culture, in reality, is not only transmitted by a dominant position, but how cultural processes can actually break with the unidirectionality of power. In these cases, the hybrid connection of an interaction arises, one that generates what Homi K. Bhabha has defined the “third space” in The location of culture (1994) or what Gloria E. Anzaldúa defines a “third nation” in Borderlands/La frontera. The new Mestiza (Anzaldúa 1987). In fact, for this Chicana scholar, the border between the United States and Mexico can be considered an herida abierta, an ‘open wound’, caused by a clash between the First World and the Third. This clash is bloody and ferocious, but it is from this blood and from the process of cicatrization that an in-between culture can be born, the “third nation” that is neither one nor the other for Anzaldúa, but a hybrid sum of those who dominate and those who are dominated. In this manner, the fear of homogenization or of a static nature of these cultures can be overcome and disburdened by increasingly making the most of the interactions, but also of the processes that foresee intersections that go beyond the territory, if we consider, for example, diasporic communities.

Wolfgang Welsch, transculturality, and the Third millennium

These reflections are echoed by what Welsch — between the end of the 20th century and the first years of the next century — defined as transculturality. Based on the Nietzschean subject connected to a multitude, in contrast with the Herderian concept that imagined cultures as single spheres, separate and closed, encapsulated and turned towards themselves, Welsch identifies two areas that regard both society and the individual in their own singularity. Hybridization, according to him, is the key to comprehension. Nothing is actually homogeneous, it is enough to look within the nations to see how everything is characterized, in principle, by that which is open, complex, and diversified. Homogeneity does not exist, but sums of differences do. In fact, Welsch problematizes the concept of national entity built on the exclusion of others: for Welsch, the others are never extraneous to the processes, but are part of an all-encompassing structure that involves both the society and the individual. Looking to the past, where multiculturalism and interculturality re-proposed polarity, only transculturalism — according to Welsch — has appeared to be a more fitting term to define our lifeworlds today.

Transculturalism is, therefore, a term that not only embraces hybridity, but that retains within itself the cathartic willpower to move towards the other. It aims to mirror itself in the other without being it, but from this reflection and from this vision, both aim to come through it transformed, both as individuals and as a society. If, in the term multiculturalism, a potentially violent conflict could be hidden, a conflict between different and irreconcilable parties — creating parallel societies that did not interact but, in the best of cases, coexisted without, however, approaching and confronting each other openly — for Welsch, transculturality holds within itself the intrinsic potential to accept the other, as well as accepting its self which has evolved. If multiculturalism is a static term, transculturalism cannot be so, as its organizing principle includes the dynamism of movement towards the other and the continuous renegotiation of the identity of those who aim to transform and who end up transformed, and vice versa. In fact, the concept of transculturalism, though still evolving, is a harbinger of change in the area of cultural disciplines, in Comparative Studies and — specifically — in Didactics (Reichardt 2017a).

Italy as a “Transcultural Laboratory”

Meanwhile, in the framework of this broad, theoretical point of view, it is precisely in Italy that discourses regarding identity and feeling at home in the 21st century prove to be particularly present in Migration Literature (Reichardt 2021, pp. 432-33). Established from the year 1990, the transcultural concept of literature unequivocally takes shape in the works of the second generation; here, one only needs to consider, for example, the emblematic novel La mia casa è dove sono (2010), written by Igiaba Scego. In the European context, it has always been possible to consider Italy as a “transcultural laboratory” par excellence (Reichardt 2006, p. 93; transl. from German in Engl. is ours). Firstly, this is due to the historical fact that the Roman Empire, for centuries, made up an immense space for encounters amongst many different cultures in ancient and classical times, whose cultural memory echoes not only in today’s Mediterranean world, but also in the key idea of the European Union (EU), whose constitution began with the Treaty of Rome in 1957 (European Economic Community, EEC). Furthermore, Italian culture — thanks to its very rich structure, passed down over centuries, made up of regions, dialects, and traditions that are both diverse as well as cultivated and preserved — has decisively influenced the principle progressive and cultural sectors of the West, including not only the banking system, medicine and natural sciences, agricultural sciences, or the economy, but also, very clearly, figurative arts, architecture, music, cinema, fashion, theater, culinary arts, and so on. Creating and renewing such important processes of civilization, the Italians have continuously absorbed different internal discourses, connecting them to each other and integrating them into those that were their own. This is due both to the centuries of foreign domination in Italy and to the influence of the pacific insight onto Italian culture, of which many foreigners have left literary and artistic testimony during their educational and formational journeys throughout the peninsula since the period of the Grand Tour in the Renaissance.

Combining cultures in this manner and also rethinking, in this context, its own colonial past (Reichardt 2017b), in the postmodern age, the subcultural profile of a Transcultural Italy (Reichardt, Moll 2018) continues to take shape, utilizing its own “Italophone syncretism” (p. 14; transl. from Italian in Engl. is ours) as a heterotopic model or blueprint, also in the attempt to control and manage — especially after the height of the European Migrant Crisis (also known as the Syrian Refugee Crisis) in 2015-2016 — the shift from a Nation of emigration to one of immigration. It is in this sense that not only the specific Italian case, but also the concept of transculturalism in general are able to offer a suggestive opportunity on the didactic and historical level. Building an interdependent, global culture together means uniting the different national cultures, pervading them, interweaving them, and combining their global and local aspects with the aim of moving beyond borders to find, ultimately, a common, pacific future amongst peoples in Welsch’s ‘transcultural’ meaning[1].

Works cited:

  • G. E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, San Francisco, CA 1987, 2012, IV ed.;
  • H. K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, New York 1994;
  • G. Deleuze, F. Guattari, Mille Plateaux, Paris 1980;
  • A. Le Pichon, L. Caronia, Sguardi venuti da lontano. Un’indagine di Transcultura, Milano 1991;
  • F. Ortiz, Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar, La Habana 1940 (Engl. transl. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, New York, NY 1947);
  • D. Reichardt, Paradigma mundi?Die Geschichte des postkolonialen Siziliendiskurses zwischen literarischer Alterität und Identität, in D. Reichardt (Ed.), L’Europa che comincia e finisce: la Sicilia. Approcci transculturali alla letteratura siciliana. Beiträge zur transkulturellen Annäherung an die sizilianische Literatur. Contributions to a Transcultural Approach to Sicilian Literature, Frankfurt a. M. et al. 2006, pp. 87-107;
  • Ead., On the Theory of a Transcultural Francophony. The Concept of Wolfgang Welsch and its Didactic Interest, in Transnational ’900. Novecento transnazionale. Letterature, arti e culture / Transnational 20th Century. Literatures, Arts and Cultures, vol. 1, n. 1 (ISSN: 2532-1994 doi: 10.13133/2532-1994_1.4_2017, Open access article licensed under CC-BY), March 2017 [= 2017a], pp. 40-56;
  • Ead., Die transkulturelle italophone Literatur, in A. Lobin, E.-T. Meineke (Eds.), Handbuch Italienisch. Sprache Literatur Kultur. Für Studium, Lehre, Praxis, Berlin 2021, pp. 428-36;
  • D. Reichardt, R. v Kulessa, N. Moll, F. Sinopoli (Eds.), Paradigmi di violenza e transculturalità: il caso italiano (1990-2015). Atti del convegno a Villa Vigoni, 8-10 ottobre 2014, Frankfurt a. M. et al. 2017 [= 2017b];
  • D. Reichardt, N. Moll, Un’Italia transculturale: quale modello?, in D. Reichardt, N. Moll (Eds.), Italia transculturale. Il sincretismo italofono come modello eterotopico, Firenze 2018, pp. 9-27;
  • E. Said, Orientalism, New York 1978;
  • W. Welsch, Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today, in M. Featherstone, S. Lash (Eds.), Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World, London 1999, pp. 194-213;
  • Id., Im Netzdesign der Kulturen, in «Zeitschrift für KulturAustausch», 1/2002, pp. 86-88.
  1. English translation of the original headword Transculturalism (Transculturalismo) authored by Dagmar Reichardt and Igiaba Scego, published by the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana Treccani in its Encyclopedia of Sciences, Letters and Arts (Enciclopedia di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti), Appendix X, 2020, pp. 649-52. — Courtesy of the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana Treccani. Retransmission online or posting in any form is prohibited.

(fasc. 44, 25 maggio 2022, vol. I)

• categoria: Categories Letture critiche