Tarkkoja siirtoja

Johan Fornäs & Mikko Lehtonen
Between Centres and Peripheries in Transnational Cultural Studies
Globalisation has never been an even and egalitarian process. There are centres, there are peripheries, and there are intermediary regions in-between. Political, economic and cultural fields all tend to be centred upon the USA, and, particularly in cultural and academic life, historical traditions sedimented in language and other symbolic forms make it possible to talk of an Anglocentrism, making all Anglophone countries closer to a dominant US-UK world axis.

Cultural Studies is at the same time both an international and cosmopolitan phenomenon and an approach emphasizing the importance of different and changing contexts. Anglo-American cultural products have different contexts both inside and outside the Anglo-American world. In other words, they have no universal given context but a number of different particular contexts. Also the Anglo-American contexts are particular, not universal.

This is true for culture as well as for cultural studies. Working with interdisciplinary and critical cultural studies from a Nordic perspective, we are well aware of the effects of this situation. The countries of the Nordic region are affluent welfare nations with comparatively little of direct colonial history, though taking part in the general world hegemony of Western culture. Our home nations fall outside the Anglophone arena and have particularly in the 19th century been rather heavily influenced by German culture, which can still be noticeable in the academia and traditions of cultural research of our countries. Hence we come from particular contexts with particular features, including the building of welfare states, strong traditions in literary education, the centrality of the printed word in the media landscape as well as a relatively rapid applications of new media.

Our points of entry into the globalised cultural studies field slightly differ. Sweden has been richer and has had a history of some domination in relation to its neighbouring countries, including Finland, which it ruled until 1809, and continued to use as a source of workforce import into the mid 20th century. It has a bigger population and a language that is closer to English than that of the Finns. Finland is a smaller and younger nation, attaining independence from Russia as late as 1917. Its main language is non-Indo-European (with Swedish as a large minority language), and this has traditionally made access to British and American discourses even harder. Still, we share important experiences of being situated in affluent welfare nations falling distinctly outside of the Anglophone arena.

There are dominating (post-, ex- or rather neo-) colonial-imperial centres, and there are dominated peripheries. The Nordic region does not fully belong to any of those two extreme categories, but falls somewhere in-between, as an intermediary area: economically and in many other ways both rich and central, but in certain geographic, social and cultural respects marginal. This intermediary position has historically also offered the Nordic countries options to act as mediators on the international arena, for instance in UN-initiated peace negotiations. In this intermediary place, Swedish and Finnish scholars, are relatively well positioned compared to many others outside the Anglo-American world. And yet we have found it important to express our experiences of being made Others.

Being in-between has advantages as well as disadvantages in the relational interplay that forms world politics as well as cultural studies. As intellectuals in the research field of cultural studies, it is easy to identify the latter. One aspect is that of language – the privileged symbolic form of communication within academic interchange. Nordic cultural studies scholars cannot use our mother tongues in internationally oriented seminars, conferences and publications. We are seriously hampered both by having to talk and write in a foreign language and by having to struggle at least a little bit harder than native English speakers, when we read and listen to others. This tends to make Anglophone participants dominating in such contexts, whereas we tend to be reduced to polite listeners rarely able to interpret others and formulate ourselves fast enough to be able to “compete” with those from Britain or the US. When hearing ourselves, it is not hard for us to see how we sound much more awkward and simplistic than those with an ability to rapidly make sophisticated statements. Linguistic training and experience improves things, but there seems always to remain a certain lag. All this has certain “Othering” impacts, regardless of many good intentions to deconstruct the “us” and “them” division in cultural studies.

This is not only a matter of language, but also of cultural resources and experiential horizon in general. US/UK/Australian speakers and writers can freely discuss artefacts and traditions of their own cultural sphere and safely expect that most colleagues around the world will know at least roughly just what it is they discuss. The reverse is rarely true. A researcher from Britain or the USA (mostly believe that they) can mention the Shirelles, Oasis, Thatcherism, Ivy League or Virginia Woolf without any detailed explanation. Such elements of contextual frames can be taken for granted, as a result of precisely the hegemony of Anglo-American media and cultural information flows. Therefore, they can immediately proceed to more detailed and qualified interpretations. For us, that is never the case. Only some extremely few icons like Ingmar Bergman and Nokia are reasonably well-known outside the Nordic countries. As soon as we want to draw on less internationally familiar aspects of our domestic cultures – including the closest parallels to the previously mentioned US/UK phenomena – we have to expand our descriptive explanations and risk loosing attention due to a lack of points of identification for others. Also in cultural studies the agenda of the international discussion is set by Anglo-American reality, as is that what is thought to be “normal” and what is not.

The “domestic” market of Cultural Studies is largely the Anglo-American world. The relative absence of French, German, Spanish, Russian and Italian scholars from the transnational Cultural Studies community further strengthens that Anglo-American hegemony. This is all true for debates and presentations at conferences as well as in publications. Besides conference organisers, journals and publishers belong to the key gatekeepers in this respect. Transnational dialogues in cultural studies have to be carried out in some of the more globalised languages, of which English is particularly strong. This implies that the main publishers for that kind of journals and books are centred in Britain or the US (and in some cases also Australia). These publishers tend largely to share the frames of reference of the researchers in those countries, and to lack an understanding of texts that deviate from that norm. It is also true that English books referring to non-English phenomena meet greater obstacles before they reach their readers. We know that some visible practitioners of cultural studies from US, UK and Australia have tried to negotiate with the known publishers in the field about introducing series of cultural studies books coming outside the Anglo-American world. That they have not succeeded is a telling example of to what extent cultural studies is also economically mixed with the hegemonic structures of our times. The biggest markets for cultural studies books are still in the Anglo-American world, so those markets have the first word to say when decisions on publishing books are made.