A Privileged Source of Information


Sabrina Brancato


Western societies (and not only), and in particular their metropolises, are increasingly the meeting point for influences derived from a variety of cultural, ethnic and religious ambits. The progressive ideology of the ‘enlightened’ West has found its modern utopia in the concept of multiculturalism. Multicultural society is – or rather ideally should be – hospitable, aimed at welcoming and, in the best case, embracing diversity. Multiculturalism (understood as the cohabitation of different cultures) and its direct development, interculturalism (where mere coexistence is extended to acceptance and comprehension, if not exchange), however, have quickly shown their limits, rooted as they are on a cultural concept that has revealed itself to be obsolete and inappropriate and which today is contested on a number of fronts.

The traditional concept of culture, characterised by social homogeneity, ethnic consolidation and intercultural delimitation, appears inadequate in the face of the numerous and increasingly complex cultural interconnections arising from the processes of globalisation and transnationalisation. The result of a cultural theory that divides the world into fragments, multicultural and intercultural ideology does little more than create and maintain polarity. This ideology, though, has certainly been effective in the fight against discrimination, in rejecting ethnocentrism and encouraging an ethic of recognition and respect of diversity. In its political application, it has been useful in securing fundamental rights in favour of minorities. Yet despite the merits, it is nonetheless necessary to acknowledge its limits and negative developments. Even in its most recent conceptualisations, this ideology maintains a necessary insistence on difference, on a sense of alterity and estrangement in the contact between cultures. The emphasis on the differences between groups can actually produce more distance, and can even, unintentionally, lead to processes of segregation and ghettoisation. When cultural barriers are maintained, it is easy to fall into the trap of reaffirmation and reinforcement of stereotypes. In addition, the process of recognition and valorisation of ‘otherness’ can lead to vain and often damaging essentialisms as well as to the exaggerated idealisation, on the part of minorities, of the culture or country of origin (the idea of authenticity, produced by a nostalgia for ‘pure origins’, is another consequence of this phenomenon that needs to be examined and overcome). Therefore, despite good intentions, the dream of multi/interculturalism can reveal itself to be counterproductive and, rather than facilitating the resolution of cultural conflicts, may actually serve to exacerbate them.

Currently, in response to its evident inability to account for the complexity of today’s experiences, the traditional notion of culture is undergoing a process of revision. Especially in the socio-anthropological and philosophical field – and more recently in literary studies – the increasingly familiar concepts of transculturality and transculturalism are being debated. These new concepts place emphasis on the dialectical nature of cultural influences, tending towards a conceptualisation of interaction where nothing is ever completely “other” (foreign and unknown), and serve therefore to understand the processes of formation of cultural identity in all of their complexity.


The association of the notion of culture to the particle “trans-“, which suggests ideas as different yet complementary as transit, transfer, translation, transgression, transformation, is not entirely new. In the 1940s the process of transculturation was introduced in the context of Afro-Cuban culture to replace the concepts of acculturation and deculturation. Since then, the term has been used in anthropology to describe the process of assimilation, through selection and re-elaboration, of a dominant culture by a subordinate or marginal group (not necessarily a minority). This idea implies, on the one hand, a substantial difference in terms of power between the two groups in contact, and, on the other, an ingenious creativity which allows the marginal group to transform the acquired material in order to produce a qualitatively new culture. The concept was subsequently applied to literature and further elaborated. The idea of narrative transculturation, for example, was used to account for the many instances of cultural transfer in the literatures of Latin America, with reference to the interaction of national, transnational, regional and subcultural (local) elements.

Although the current debate over the new terminology and conceptualisation of cultural interaction does not make reference to transculturation, it is not difficult to spot the points of contact and continuity. For example, in cultural studies, in particular in colonial and postcolonial contexts, the concept of transculturation has been taken beyond its original unidirectionality and has become a model of reciprocal interaction, which is especially multifaceted and complex in contact zones. As a model of pluridirectional cultural exchange, transculturation may be seen as the predecessor of the newly developed concepts of transculturality and transculturalism, although it should not be confused with these.

Nowadays the need to revise the notion of culture, the models of interaction and the processes of formation of cultural identity is a direct consequence of modern reality, increasingly marked by transnationalisation (anthropologists often prefer this term to the more ambiguous ‘globalisation’), a phenomenon – concerning economy as well as politics, technology and culture – which was primarily influenced by the developments in systems of communication since the late 1960s. Immediate electronic communication enormously alters our lives and establishes previously unthinkable interconnections. As Anthony Giddens observes, “when the image of Nelson Mandela may be more familiar to us than the face of our nextdoor neighbour, something has changed in the nature of our everyday experience.” It is therefore also in this way (and not only in the political sense) that our world is witnessing the fall of national barriers and becomes more flexible with each passing day. Flexibility is identified as the modus operandi of late capitalism. Especially on the economic level, we have become familiar with the idea of flexible accumulation, which, in relation to work processes, markets, products and models of consumption, is rapidly and radically changing the contemporary scene. The flexibility of the capital finds an immediate response in individual behaviours and in the strategies of adaptation and repositioning with respect to markets, governments, and cultural regimes (in the increasingly common practice of flexible citizenship, for example). Even the figure of the uprooted immigrant is being revised on the basis of the flexibility of current transnational practices, becoming a “transmigrant”: “Transmigrants are immigrants whose daily lives depend on multiple and constant interconnections across international borders and whose public identities are configured in a relationship to more than one nation-state” (Glick Schiller et al). At the cultural level this flexibility translates into mobility and constant alteration of meanings and cultural identities. In fact, far from producing a homogenisation of culture, as was initially feared and forecast, transnationalisation, with the variety of phenomena accompanying it (migration, mobility, circulation of products, ideas, images, knowledge, etc.), is presently manifesting itself in an evident increase in cultural diversity. This diversity takes a new form with respect to the past because the tight interconnections and growing deterritorialisation make it ever more difficult, if not impossible, to classify different cultures into distinct units. World culture does not present itself as uniform, but can be rather described as ‘organised diversity’, that is, a web of various local cultures (which are not necessarily anchored to a geographical territory): “glocalities”, as they might be termed.

Particular articulations of the global and the local in contemporary societies give life to new cultural forms, modern and plural. In order to understand the processes of formation of ‘multiple modernities’, of ‘migrant modernities’ and of virtual communities (the localising cultural expressions produced by globalisation), new conceptualisations and models of cultural interaction are needed. Transculturality, an operative as well as descriptive concept elaborated by Wolfgang Welsch, responds precisely to this need. Recognising in Nietzsche a precursor of transculturality, for his formula of the subject as multitude, Welsch places the emphasis on cultural fertilisation on a variety of levels, from the macro-level of societies – whose cultural forms are characterised today by an increasing internal differentiation, complexity and hybridisation – to the micro-level of individual experience, where personal and cultural identity rarely, if ever, corresponds to civic and national identity and is instead increasingly marked by multiple cultural connections. On a pragmatic level Welsch opposes the concept of transculturality to the traditional concept of cultures as discrete units which was developed by Herder in the 18th century. This old notion lays emphasis on what is distinctive of a people and on the exclusion of everything which is different and foreign, thus tending irreparably towards a kind of cultural racism, whereas transculturality aims at an intersected and inclusive vision of culture: “It intends a culture and society whose pragmatic feats exist not only in delimitation, but in the ability to link and undergo transition.” Transculturality is to be understood therefore not only as an analytical model of modern reality, but also as an ideal to follow in the every-day practice of cultural interaction: “It is a matter of readjusting our inner compass: away from the concentration on the polarity of the own and the foreign to an attentiveness for what might be common and connective wherever we encounter things foreign.” It would be opportune at this point to adopt a terminological differentiation in order to distinguish the descriptive level from the operative and ideological. Where transculturality becomes an analytical model for the understanding of today’s cultural reality, transculturalism (the two terms are often used as synonyms) could be a more adequate term to describe the ideology that arises: a desire to interact starting from intersections rather than from differences and polarities, an awareness of the transcultural in us in order to better understand and embrace what is external to us, a vision privileging flexibility and fluidity, movement and continuous exchange, the constant renegotiation of identity.


In order to understand the cultural forms emerging from migratory movements, diasporas and processes of cross-cultural creolisation, the debate over the deterritorialisation of cultures and the fluidity of cultural interaction is of central importance. The evisceration of the traditional notion of culture, no longer understood as a homogeneous entity, and the idea of dense interconnection and continuous transformation generated by the concepts of transculturality and transculturalism open new theoretical horizons and new paths of analysis, aiming at overcoming the limits of cultures as seen in national and regional terms and at the same time offering an alternative to the dichotomic paradigms such as, for example, postcolonialism (which in any case remains an extremely valid model of interpretation in some contexts). As Frank Schulze-Engler underlines, the phenomenon of transnationalisation of cultures constitutes an enormous challenge for literary studies, which are called to develop (through an interdisciplinary dialogue) new theoretical and methodological approaches for the exploration of the ‘transcultural imaginary’ in contemporary literature. A new theoretical framework based on transculturality allows us to better place developments like migrant or hybrid literatures (but then, what literature is not hybrid?) and to better comprehend the cultural identities contained in these without running the risk of transforming this current area of research into a new ghettoising canon.

In conclusion, tranculturality should be understood, in the context of cultural, literary and artistic studies, as a theoretical framework comprising different phenomena of cultural interaction (from postcolonial intertextuality to cross-cultural hybridisation and creolisation, and the multiple modernities of the global world) and allows us to extract various forms of cultural, literary and artistic expression from the confines of the national and regional context, as well as to revisit the local and the diasporic from a global viewpoint. On a more general level, transculturalism is the other side of globalisation, an ideological response to the threat posed by cultural homogenisation on the one hand and fundamentalist essentialisms on the other, a revolution of thought that emancipates the mental ghettoes of which we are prisoners, a door that opens onto multiple paths, the new horizons of cultural identity.


This article is a shorter and slightly revised version of an essay published in Le Simplegadi, 2.2 (2005) with the title: “Transculturality and Transculturalism: New Horizons for Cultural Identity”.