Tarkkoja siirtoja

Johan Fornäs & Mikko Lehtonen
Between Centres and Peripheries in Transnational Cultural Studies

The result is that we tend to remain marginalised internationally. In conferences as well as in publications, our voices count less than those from the US-UK axis. What we say feels less central to the concerns of the cultural studies field at large, since we cannot express ourselves quite as fluently as others, and our frames of reference are slightly out of tune with what counts as important in London or Chicago. We might be added as an exotic spice now and then, illustrating some less relevant point, before we are again put aside, safely placed outside the doxa of what really matters. Only some chosen few of us are allowed to remain in the centre of the field. Almost without exception, that only goes for those of us who either have Anglo-American roots, have studied or worked in Birmingham or Duke, or have done extensive work about Anglo-American culture. This is also some of the strategies we do use in order to step out of our domestic isolation. It may work, but it costs time and money, and deprives the transnational field of certain voices and insights that might have been contributed by those who refuse or are unable to make those concessions. There is no way for us to write from our home countries, using domestic empirical sources and still become internationally acknowledged. This can happen to a Brit or American, whose work can always suddenly be taken up and be made relevant to the field at large.

This is not necessarily to say that we are marginalised outside the Anglo-American world, especially in our own and neighbouring countries. But it implies a general problem within the field at large. In cultural studies we have time and again stressed the importance of contexts. As some contexts tend to be marginalised in comparison to others, there is a danger that the particularity of the privileged contexts is replaced by the view that they were universal. This, of course, is not the case, not even in our globalising world.

It is not only others who marginalise us; we also marginalise ourselves. Some of us may finally get invited or published internationally, but even then, these entrances into that arena tend to remain uncommented by others. British and American colleagues continue to think, talk and write as if transnational cultural studies remained basically a UK-US-Australian business. And, sorry to say, so do we ourselves. When we write in English, we sadly tend to reproduce precisely the same neglect of works from our own countries or from other marginal regions of the world. Instead, we (correctly!) think that we have to focus on the leading British and American ideas in order for us to be taken seriously. In this manner, we take part in our own marginalisation.

There are also other domination patterns, such as parochial local patriotism in all regions (including our own), or the conventional Eurocentrism in which the Nordic countries eagerly partake. It is for instance problematic that when postcolonial studies are made in Sweden, they have until now mostly dealt with Swedish reception of and participation in the traditional colonial exploitation of Africa, whereas studies of Sweden’s own colonial relations with Finland, the Baltic area at large and not least the Sami population have only recently started to be scrutinised. In research, the support programmes developed by the EU and the ESF (the European Science Foundation, a body for co-operation between European research councils) also risks to exclude non-European partnerships and thus contribute to the fortification of Festung Europa.

However, there might also be some empowering potentials in working on the border between centres and margins. Having to communicate in foreign languages with people who do not fully share our ordinary common sense knowledge, we have to become much more explicit, and also more reflexive. People who move between groups, travellers between geographic or social areas, or individuals who move upwards between classes – all such nomads have a chance to become “inside outsiders” with a heightened awareness of their own position and those of others, and of the rules and mechanisms that govern the field. As Swedes or Finns, we always are reminded of the differential values between words and cultural expressions in different contexts, and cannot just take them for granted. This offers us a chance to become reflexive agents in cultural studies as well, sensitised to the polycentric and multicultural fields through which we all move, but where more centrally positioned individuals may be less conscious of certain patterns of domination. On the other hand, the decision to write in English has a tendency to marginalize us in our domestic cultures. With large domestic reading publics, writing in English means that we will be at home read only by our academic colleagues, which is not always the case when we publish in our local languages.

What can be done to change things? A moral appeal is rather futile. Shame and guilt does not solve any problems. Instead, a combination of practical and financial measures with thematic and intellectual projects should be developed, so that effective means are created to improve transnational communication simultaneously with an organised collective reflection on the implications of the currently (and possibly necessarily) uneven distribution of communicative resources in the transnational public sphere of the cultural studies field. Establish area-based publishers in cultural studies. Launch new areal journals. Intensify the use of Internet as an alternative public sphere for cultural studies scholars. Organise some conferences or sessions where all speakers are forced to use another language than their native one. Have some sessions in other languages than English in all international conferences. Install translation programmes and support funds to aid journals and publishers to improve texts from non-Anglophone authors. Develop reflexivity around these issues by arranging special conferences, sessions and journal sections dealing with intercultural communication in the academy. Develop programmes for interchange between different non-Anglophone regions across the world. Make initiatives for bringing the non-Anglo-American countries and cultures into the field of cultural studies.

Truly transnational cultural studies cannot take place without a multifarious flow of ideas across different cultural barriers. This flow, not only from centers to peripheries but also from peripheries to centers and peripheries to peripheries is vital if we are to learn more of the crucial factor in our work that, in the end, theories and methods are not context-free nor universal but always influenced by the particular spaces and cultural relations where they are developed.

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