Wednesday, November 18, 2015

What is Transnationalism?

I hear a lot about transnationalism these days.  I have an essay forthcoming in a book TEACHING TRANSNATIONAL CINEMA: POLITICS AND PEDAGOGY (Routledge, 2016), which concentrates on immigrant identities, transnational encounters, foreignness, cosmopolitanism and citizenship, terrorism, border politics, legality and race.  Further information can be found at

The American Studies Association of Turkey (ASAT) has an event forthcoming at the end of this month on “Transnational American Studies,” that explores Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s suggestion that American Studies should expand its remit into “multidirectional flows of people, ideas, and goods,” as well as establishing “social, political, linguistic, cultural, and economic crossroads” that would enrich our understanding of America and its global impact  The Journal I edit for ASAT, the Journal of American Studies in Turkey, tries to perpetuate this transnational spirit through accepting a wide variety of submissions, not necessarily about “America” as a social, political or cultural construct, but which involve dialogic matters in some way, shape or form.

Yet the more I become involved in transnational studies, the more confused I become as to how to define it.  What distinguishes this mode of thinking from international or multinational studies, or even cross-national studies?  As a Brit living in Turkey editing an American Studies journal, am I a transnational?  And are the majority of papers I hear at conferences comparing one cultural construction with another really “transnational,” or simply a modified form of “intercultural studies,” a concept that enjoyed popularity in the late Nineties but which seems to have fallen into disfavor now.

It was quite by chance that I heard a speech given by Fred Gardaphė, Distinguished Professor at the John D. Calendra Italian American Institute at Queens College, New York, at the Italian American Studies conference in Naples.  Like many scholars in the field, he called for greater collaboration between scholars of different cultures – Italians as well as Americans – to reframe “American Studies” in such a way that it no longer centered on “America” but rather explored questions of shifting identity construction.  This process should be achieved not only through scholarly research but through dialogue – the kind of constructive academic work that requires us not to impose our views on others but rather listen to them.  Although Gardaphė did not describe the model in quite the same terms, he advocated listening rather than just listening; not just taking into account the words people say, but trying to decode the meaning behind them.  This is something way beyond the politics of diplomacy; it requires us to study character – not only the characters of those whom we address, but our own character as well.  We have to be prepared to shift our perspective, to allow for new learning and new insights that might strike us totally spontaneously.  In short, we have to learn openness.

Gardaphė’s arguments struck me as revelatory.  He was not just focusing on transnationalism as a series of general issues – race, politics, class, citizenship – but rather suggesting an a priori willingness to become passionate about listening to and learning from others.  This ability could pave the way for an enhanced understanding of what “transnationalism” represents to individuals and the diverse worlds they inhabit.
I subsequently traveled to São Paulo for another conference, this time on the relationship between adaptation and translation.  While there were interventions focusing exclusively on textual issues, the majority of the participants seemed far more interested in “transnationalism,” as a form of dialogic exchange.  Not only could this process be enacted through reading papers, but – perhaps more significantly – through informal exchanges.  The participants exhibited a refreshing honesty not found in most conferences (which tend to comprise a series of formal papers read out loud for the sole purposes of improving one’s academic résumé), that manifested itself in a willingness to apply the insights learned from listening to papers to their own lives.  How could listening to a paper on translating children’s literature into Portuguese, and the decisions taken by specific translators, affect the ways in which we look at the world?  Is there such a concept as cultural specificity, or is this simply an artificial construct designed to reinforce boundaries between self and other?  Such ontological questions lie at the basis of any transnational outlook.

As I listened to the papers, I began to realize that transnationalism is inseparable from transculturality and translingualism.  Until such time as we learn to dissolve the boundaries separating one subject discipline from another (which tend to be culturally determined), we will not really acquire a transnational perspective.  Likewise we should realize that dialogue between representatives of different nations and cultures does not have to take place in one language; to do so is to impose an artificial hegemony on work that actively resists hegemonic incorporation.  Rather we should be free to use whatever communicative strategies we wish; it’s important for others to understand why we use them rather than simply to understand them.  Form matters as much, if not more than content.

If this is the case, then perhaps we need to start looking for ways in which the events described at the beginning of this post can be amalgamated, thereby permitting participants to think across disciplines as well as cultures.  Only then can they acquire the breadth of openness that might pave the way for a genuinely transnational view of life.  Maybe American Studies needs to come out of its disciplinary cocoon; likewise Film Studies.