Internationale Kulturwissenschaften
International Cultural Studies
Etudes culturelles internationales

Anil Bhatti (New Delhi)


The Internationalization of Cultural Studies and the change in perspectives in research
Proposal for discussion of the INST Conference, Paris, September 1999


In this brief note I would like to suggest that the forms of research cooperation require some rethinking in a polyphonic and polycentric world. The increasing internationalization in cultural studies should, in other words, be reflected in more adequate forms of research than has hitherto been the case.

Till recently the usual and democratic resolution of the adherence to 'monologic' centres of power has been the movement towards a 'dialogue'.

In etymological terms it is, of course, not at all necessary that a dialogue should take place only between two authorities or representatives. But in everyday consciousness this seems to be case and various versions of dialogical philosophy [Buber's philosophy for example) have certainly contributed to this idea. In contrast, the notion of 'polylog', which is increasingly being used now, enables us to grasp situations that are structured in a polycentric fashion in which it would be possible to create polyphonic conditions of communication. These would in priciple at least:

a) critically question the monopolization of power and domination (in the form of establishment of interests, priorities, argumentation etc. and
b) permit the possibility of a sufficiently 'soft' communicative universalisation.

I would like to pose three preliminary questions for discussion which could have some importance for structuring forms of communication in cultural studies. (1)

Firstly: our dicussion proceeds from a situation in which cultural patterns of explanation were replaced the 1960s by the political and sociological 'discovery' of 'the Third World'. After that the Other and the Alien were discovered and now all of us seem to comfortably possess cultures again. Is this an answer to the problem of reduction and with that an answer to the complexity of praxis too, or is the opposite the case.? When I construct cultures and, for example, try to explain a matter of praxis or a text in cultural terms, do I deliver anything more than pleonasms (tautologies)? Is it not the case that a cultural explanation is the simplest way of interpretation? One need not then ask any further questions. Or is cultural interpretation and commentary an answer to an explanatory deficit in science and scholarship till now? Is the growing sensitivity to cultural arguments a conservative move? This question also addresses the problem of respect for other cultures, through which enlightened critique is silenced and legitimistic functions gain in importance.

Culture, cultural theory, cultural studies, culturalism : the inflationary use of 'culture' is striking as also the corresponding discontent with the use of culture and the cultural argument.
One soon finds out that the irritation with this trend is also inflationary.
Is this connected with a new form of reductionism which could be compared to economism, biologism, essentialism and so on, as Eagleton suspects? Earlier, about thirty years ago, the reference to a social context of explanation made everything clear. The philosopher Schnädelbach remembers that the insight, that everything is 'socially mediated' had a kind of "aha-effect" for members of the Frankfurt school of the fifties.(3)
Schnädelbach suggests, that the decentering of the concept of society is linked to the vacuum in general consciousness left behind by the diminishing power of conviction of Marxist theory. The expression 'culture' can be used today without being suspected of conservatism or of ideological rigidity. it has come back into our discourse in a sanitized form after being 'de-scienticised'. In our context we could, for the time being, put aside the intellectual - historical reasons for this (cultural anthropology, structuralism etc.) and instead simply say that today everything is 'culturally' determined and everything seems equally clear as well.

Apparently Eagleton expressed his scepticism at an international conference on 'Cultural Studies: China and the West', at the Dalian University of Foreign Languages, Dalian, China. The occasion seems relevant to me. For in the international discussion today we are also concerned with, among other things, the role, application and the usefulness of European culture theories (not culture!) from the enlightenment to the present times and their aporia.

Like other critics of culturalism, Eagleton too points out that culture, in an extended sense, has been an integral part of modern European social and political movements. Understood as that area, in which language, values, customs, life styles, identity, "allegiance" have a role to play, culture has been an integral part of revolutionary nationalism, 'sexual politics', and ethnic conflicts in the last decades. This means culture is no longer the alternative to the prose of politics or its sublation in the sense of a liberal humanism. The tradition of this humanism is, as Eagleton emphasizes, not to be ignored, for even today it forms the basis of venerable utopian visions. Of 'hopelessly idealistic' ones too, one may add. But the liberal-humanistic vision can no longer be sustained if culture, instead of being part of the solution, becomes part of the problem. If it becomes part "of the very terms in which political interests articulate themselves, rather than the deeper, universal, more perdurable language in which such ephemeral quarrels may be resolved." (4)

Postmodern thought cannot accept the idea of culture as 'interest free' reconciliation. Instead it celebrates difference. However, difference is celebrated in the context of a capitalistic homogenization of the world. Postmodernism makes its contribution by, as it were, exporting a philosophy of difference as, among other things, a mode of western cultural integration.

However, Eagleton is mainly concerned with modernization programmes in the third world, which take place in the context of the hegemonic bias of European post-modernism and, in this situation, the emphasis on culture is a kind of mystification. Lepenies' point of departure is also the modernization program.(5) The West finds itself in a new situation, where it can no longer define and control this program. But the successes and now the failures of the East Asian capitalistic states have forced a new situation. In the field of theory there is arbitrariness now. Confucianism, which was earlier considered an obstacle in the path of modernization, is now seen as a pendant to Protestant ethics. At the same time modernization is considered a superficial syndrome. The West is developing a kind of cultural over-compensation vis-à-vis these Asian states, which are modernizing without becoming westernized. But the rhetoric of recognition corresponds to the old rhetoric of exclusion. The alien remains alien.

Basically the point concerns the pluralization of cultures. All scenarios of cultural conflict ('clash of civilizations') sustain themselves from the "Ideology of the Singular". The non-European cultures and religions are ascribed a "compact singularity". Thus they remain alien and modernity cannot connect with them anymore. This allegedly is especially true for Islam. It is, of course, necessary to break out of this mould of thinking, but attempts to historicize or pluralize Islam meet with resistance in the West and Islamic studies / research in the West is increasingly becoming a textual philology. And precisely because western modernity propagates pluralism, the denial of plurality in the case of other cultures is suspicious.

: A key argument could thus be: Cultures must be strictly thought of in the plural and understood as processes. Concepts of pluralization emphasize "shared Histories" and oppose cultural monadology and essentialism. They lead to pluralization and to skepticism vis-à-vis concepts of space.(6)
This means as Eric Wolf has suggested: cultural sciences must take heterogeneity and the contradictions in cultural systems more seriously.
(7) That would have consequences for questions of communication. How does this differentiation produce a politics of meaning and cultural construction? In studies on ethnicity, we can welcome the change in perspective that fits cultures into larger 'intra- and interconnected' systems. This means that cultures are not a given entity; rather they should be seen as a problem, as changing, and not as fixed units. This is a counterbalance to undifferentiated and rigid arguments for cultural specificity and uniqueness which increasingly tend to become a political weapon. Scholarship and Science have to take this seriously.

In the context of the problem of construction of cultures, the importance of the critique of 'monadology' would require emphasis. The scholarly discussion since "Orientalism" (Edward Said) lays emphasis on the critique of methods of dichotomizing or positing by frozen definitions ('self', 'eigen' and 'alien', 'fremd') also fall into this mode of dichotomisation) and the essentialization of cultures. Instead, "shared histories" are now being emphasised in the discussion on colonialism. From this perspective India and Europe have become the 'cultures' they are today through a process of mutual contact / influence, and not simply due to their own internal dynamics. The overlap between the inner and the outer situation is considered more important and the principle of "internal causation" (Tenbruck) is critically rejected. (8) The construction of cultures as monads or as distinct units should not be assesed as a convenient kind of procedural economy, but should be seen as a result of dichotomization. Seeing cultures as processes gives an insight into the normality of multicultural and multilingual contexts. The national argument in the language-oriented variant that Herder gave us is thus historicized and understood as a special case. Identity is a complex phenomenon and can be thought of and constructed only in the plural. Even its strategic use comes into the picture. Is this generally valid? Is this the general trend?

Changes of language, hybridity, migrant existence (displacement) are signatures of postcolonial processes. The rise of multicultural societies even in places which were hitherto marked by monolingual and to a large extent monocultural traditions (a few nations in Europe, for example) and where the corresponding experiences have yet to be gathered, draws our attention to the political aspect of the question. What methodological implications does this have? Can the primacy of the 'hermeneutics of understanding' still be sustained? Is it a question of understanding the "others" and their "cultures"? Or is it rather a question of getting along with each other, recognizing each other and of putting aside the problem of understanding as secondary for the time being? The implications for the concept of tolerance and especially for the discussion on tolerance and toleration are obvious. Literature, and increasingly even literary studies, are discussing this now. Hence the greater attention to comparative studies, translation theory (translation as representation, cultural translation), intertextuality and intermediality and the renewed discussion of social mimesis as an aesthetic category. Hence also the dismissal of the discourse on authenticity.

A necessary reflection concerns language and language diversity. The type of functioning multilingualism in India for instance, is difficult to define and a behaviouristic model of 'code switching' would hardly help in comprehending it. It seems to me that we are dealing in cases like India with a question of linguistic disposition ('habitus') as if a multilingual competence creates a meta-linguistic level of reference, which makes communication sufficiently possible or, or as the case may be, circumvents it. This is a historical consequence in India and is related to the overlap between Europe and India. In Europe the only historical model, which could have been compared to India, namely the Habsburg model, lost out against the romantic model influenced by the ( probably partially biased) reception of Herder which preferred the unity of language, 'Volk' and nation.

What will a multilingual Europe look like? Will the future Europe only be a kind of expanded Switzerland, a multilingual state without actually practised multilingualism? Will we have, even in the Europe of the future, a collection of language monads, each of them, as it were, directly in competition and bilateral negotiation with the rest of the world?

In this context it may be useful to remember a few ideas of Umberto Eco. Europe, which was an agglomerate of individual languages, faces the problem that its different languages can be thought of as results of ethnic ties and temporally sedimented traditions. This is valid for other regions of the world too. Albeit with the difference that the quasi "natural" multilingualism which, to an extent, had historical origins ( in India, for example) faded out in Europe in the process of nation building. Eco says that Europe needs to urgently find a language of communication today. However, it also sees itself forced to reckon with its own historical calling as a continent that has produced different languages, each of which, however remote, is the carrier of an ethnic 'spirit' (Geist) and a thousand year old tradition.

Eco is principally concerned with a language of communication, which could also be an artificial language, it need not necessarily be one of the natural languages of Europe.

India does not have, as a communicative bond, an a-posteriori language of communication, but a historically naturalized foreign language, English, which, due to its being naturalized, has the same rights as the other Indian languages. And like all rights this right too is subject to the social process. Despite that, Eco's words could well have been written in India 50 years ago. Can one imagine a multilingual, multicultural Europe in the future, which could be compared with the multilingual, multicultural India?

At least structurally the situations are comparable. The problem is the democratic handling of diversity. Eco is concerned with the possibility of living together on a continent that is multilingual by calling. For him the problem lies in building a community of human beings who are able to grasp the spirit, the aroma, the atmosphere of another language and not in a triumph of total multilinguality. A Europe of polyglotts is not a Europe of people who are perfect in several languages, but of people who are able to communicate by speaking one's own language and understanding the language of others, even though one might not speak it fluently. (9)

If there can be a consesus about this position, then its transposition into research communication would depend on the ability to replace the self-confirmatory tendency of the dialogue (between two) with a polycentric form of communication, where the important thing would not be that everyone is right in his own way, but that each in his own way has not exhausted the potential of the multiple. Seen in this way, the polylogical relationship would, as a research strategy, contribute to the "Culture of Peace". Not in an affirmative way, but as critique.

Author's note: This is an english version of my contribution: Internationalisierung der Kulturwissenschaften und Perspektivenwechsel in der Forschung. Diskussionsvorschlag



1 Cf.: Franz Wimmer, Polylog der Traditionen im philosophischen Denken. In: Ethik und Politik aus interkultureller Sicht, hrsg.v. R.A. Mall und N. Schneider, Studien zur interkulturellen Philosophie Bd.5 (1996), S. 39-54. Und zuletzt: Michael Lackner. Michael Werner, , Der Cultural Turn in den Humanwisenschaften, Bad Homburg, 1998 (Ms)
2 Richard Faber, Rettende Kultur- und Religionskritik? In: Weimarer Beiträge 43 (1997) 2, pp. 209-222
3 Herbert Schnädelbach, Plädoyer für eine kritische Kulturphilosophie. In: Kulturphilosophie, hrsg.v. Ralf Konersmann, Leipzig 1996 (Reclam), pp. 307-326; here p.308
4 Terry Eagleton, The Contradictions of Postmodernism. In: New Literary History; Cultural Studies, China and the West. Vol 28 (Winter 1997), No 1. pp. 3-6
5 Wolf Lepenies, Has the Europeanisation of the World Ended? In:Development and Coperation. No 5,1997 (Sept/Oct), pp. 9-12
6 Cf.: Anil Bhatti, Grenzziehungen: Postkolonial. In TRANS 0 Nr.. A shorter version has been published in: Kulturelle Grenzziehungen im Spiegel der Literaturen: Nationalismus, Regionalismus, Fundamentalismus, hrsg.v. Horst Turk, Brigitte Schultze und Roberto Simanowski, Göttingen, 1999, pp339-356
7 Eric Wolf, Perilious Ideas. Race, Culture, People. In: Current Anthropology Vol. 35, No.1, Feb 1994. pp. 1-12
8 Friedrich H. Tenbruck, Was war der Kulturvergleich, ehe es den Kulturvergleich gab? In: Zwischen den Kulturen? Die Sozialwissenschaften vor dem Problem des Kulturvergleichs, hrsg.v. Joachim Matthes, Göttingen, 1992 (Verlag Otto Schwartz & Co.), pp. 13-36. Here: p. 13
9 Umberto Eco, Die Suche nach der vollkommenen Sprache, München, 1995 (Italian orig. 1993). pp.349ff.
© Anil Bhatti, 1999

Internationale Kulturwissenschaften
International Cultural Studies
Etudes culturelles internationales

© INST 1999

Institut zur Erforschung und Förderung österreichischer und internationaler Literaturprozesse

 Research Institute for Austrian and International Literature and Cultural Studies

 Institut de recherche de littérature et civilisation autrichiennes et internationales