For ten years, (2005-2015) the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowships in the Humanities “Cultures in Transnational Perspective” program explored questions of transnationalism from both contemporary and historical perspectives. The program provided two-year postdoctoral fellowships to nearly 30 fellows in the emerging field of transnational and transcolonial studies, understood as the transversal and comparative study of minority cultures across national boundaries and different historical periods.”
Transnational theory takes as its starting point the recognition that individual and social identities have traditionally been shaped by, and studied according to, the bounded categories of geopolitical location, nation, race, ethnicity and class. But in a world increasingly marked by migrations, diasporas and cultural as well as economic globalization, questions of home, community, and allegiance are constantly being redefined. How do we re-think identity within a transnational and transcolonial context of shifting affiliations across traditional borders of space and culture? How do migrations of masses of people across boundaries of language and culture, together with the increasing globalization of information technologies and cultural production, transform common understandings of citizenship and community? Does globalization necessarily entail the homogenization of cultures and identities or does it produce both assimilation and differentiation in varying mixes? In what ways, that is, does the presence of minority cultures put pressure on the boundaries of homogeneous national cultures, introducing diversity, multiplicity and difference into national versions of culture, citizenship and community? These are questions that reach far beyond the organization of academic disciplines into the very nature of contemporary life.
The program takes up the question of “minority cultures” as a major component of contemporary world culture, generated by immigrant and minority writers, artists, film-makers and musicians residing in metropolitan centers across the world and thereby reshaping the canons of literature, art and music in those centers. Although minority cultures are most often intercultural and multilingual, until now they have been analyzed primarily in terms of national paradigms, no doubt because the very term “minority” has been taken to designate a marginal (or oppressed) element within an otherwise majority configuration. If, instead, minority cultures are seen in terms of new intellectual paradigms that stress intersection, overlap, multiplicity and “mixing” of all kinds, it makes sense to study the workings of minority cultures comparatively and in connection to each other. From this perspective, minority cultures may yet be the most “cosmopolitan” of all cultures, albeit in uneven terrains of power, precisely because they bear the traces of multiple national cultures in a rich mix that cannot be easily untangled or attributed to the dominant presence of one or another element within them. A sustained investigation of minority cultures in terms of transnational processes and perspectives, therefore, can lead to a dramatic reformulation of the traditional modes of studying national languages, histories, literatures and arts which at present undergird disciplinary divisions within the humanities and social sciences. To the extent that these cultural articulations affect both the dominant and minority cultures, they will constitute a fulcrum of humanistic investigation in the years to come.
As the collective volume edited by Francoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, Minor Transnationalism (2005), has argued, a signal advantage of this approach to minority cultures is that it avoids the all-too-familiar tendency to view minority-majority relationships vertically in terms of domination and “othering,” a phase characteristic of early postcolonial theory that was intellectually productive at the time of its initial conception, but which no longer speaks to the increasingly hybrid and pluricultural nature of contemporary cultural practices. The theory of transnationalism seeks to move beyond vertical analyses confined to a single nation-state (for example, British colonialism in India) in favor of a horizontal approach that views minority cultures as much in relation to each other as to the majority cultures. These relationalities are complex and multiple, not limited to the vector of domination and resistance.
Indeed, a premise of the present program is that minority cultural formations are inherently transnational. For example, many European nations such as Britain, France, Portugal and Spain, as well as the Asian nations of China and Japan, have a history of imperial and colonial domination. As a result, their cultures, literatures and languages, film, music and art forms have reached peoples and nations far beyond their borders (e.g., in Asia, Japanese colonialism was an important factor in native literary productions across China, Korea, Taiwan and Southeast Asia). One of the goals of the program in transnational studies is to allow Fellows working in different regions of the world – Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America – to test the viability of the theory of transnationalism by exploring how it operates, and has operated, differentially in various parts of the world, both in the past and in the present. The program promotes dialogue among those investigating minority cultures in different domains. By definition, transnational studies requires that one move beyond the more traditional foci of area studies and national cultures and histories. Its reach is global and its method of inquiry intrinsically comparative.
Similarly, the Mellon program provides a locus for examining the ways in which minority cultures are treated differentially across various disciplinary boundaries such as literature, history, art history, musicology, theater, film and art. For example, in the domain of art, the transnational movements of peoples and cultures witnessed over the past century have generated alternative, hybrid forms of visual culture that have challenged the prevailing paradigms of art historical study and raised a host of new questions. Whereas, traditionally, art historians have spoken of “stylistic influence” to describe intercultural experience, these forms of borrowing typically assume the presence of coherent, pre-existing and relatively homogeneous national traditions. A transnationalist perspective asks how global cultures, in both the past and the present, have influenced the production, circulation and interpretation of the visual arts. Thus, it becomes impossible to understand “French Art” of the nineteenth century without understanding the aesthetic exchanges between France and its colonial possessions at the time and the same can be said of many other national artistic cultures in different periods. Similar changes in perspective affect the understanding of musical creation across the centuries; hence, musicology is centrally integrated into the current program.
Drama and, more generally, theater studies are equally affected by the emergence of transnational movements. Performance projects across nations and in international festivals now compose the core of contemporary theatrical practice. Performances, such as the production of the Dybbuk between the United States, Japan and Israel, using theatrical techniques from the different traditions, exemplify the transnational flows of performance traditions and cultural attitudes that are beginning to emerge as important subjects for study within the field.
One of the most interesting aspects of studying cultures in transnational perspectives is that opened upon the past. For historians, transnational studies is important not only for the modern and contemporary periods, but also for earlier periods, before the emergence of nation states. As some historians are beginning to point out, one need only look at archeological discoveries of Polynesian artifacts in Africa or Chinese pottery fragments in the New World to see that other world systems existed well before Columbus’s discovery of America. New work in world history has begun to chart the migration of merchants and the movement of labor across the globe through the centuries, but less attention has been paid to the impact that these processes had on the formation of minority cultures that existed before the emergence of national cultures and that continue to be created and transformed today within national and transnational contexts. By focusing on these phenomena over several centuries, we will be better able to understand and appreciate what is distinctive about the contemporary situation.
By bringing together scholars from diverse fields and disciplines, the program hopes to test the theory of transnationalism by submitting it to a series of comparative questions: Are their significant variations in the degrees of openness or resistance to foreign or minority influences on dominant cultures within regionally distinct parts of the world? Is it the case that musical or artistic forms are more permeable to minoritization than, say, literary ones? What is lost in translation as cultures move from one venue to another? What, in a more profound sense, are the psychological losses experienced in the process of migration, exile, and diasporic movement? Such a question interrogates, and seeks to nuance, the rather triumphalist tone of current work on transnationalism, with its celebration of fluidity and hybridity, by inquiring into the sense of loss of cultural identity that often accompanies the loss of one’s homeland, language and culture. In light of this, one might ask whether cultural hybridity constitutes a good in itself, or are there hidden costs to its expansion over the globe, both in terms of personal identities and cultural production. These are some of the questions the program hopes to explore by expanding its reach to history, art, art history and musicology, theater and film, using a broad definition of the humanities.
In a larger sense, transnationalism is a growing fact of the present world, and to understand it in all its guises and dimensions will both acknowledge diversity as a central characteristic of contemporary global societies and help to redefine it in ways that better capture its nature. The great and abiding task of the humanities is to cultivate appreciation for the immense variety of the ways that peoples and societies live, think, and create. Transnational studies takes its most fundamental impulse from that belief, and seeks to move beyond the simple appreciation of diversity in “others” to demonstrate that it is already inextricably inscribed within us in the very fabric of our lives, thoughts, aspirations and cultures.