Re-placing Cultures

On transculture

Mikhail Epstein, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor
of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature


Vol. 7 No. 5
April/May 2005

Special Issue

Re-placing Cultures
A dialogue among disciplines
Guest Editor, Bruce M. Knauft, Executive Director, Institute for Comparative and International Studies, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology

On transculture
Mikhail Epstein

I think the boogieman of AIDS has more resonance in the United States than it might have in a community in Africa, where people are accommodating to it.
Deborah McFarland, Associate Professor of International Health

Increasingly, our law is so tied up with the religiosity of this society that it’s not just repositioning law, it’s
repositioning the role of religion in American culture.

Martha L.A. Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law

Re-placing National Culture
Globalization and collective identity in the Netherlands
Frank Lechner, Associate Professor of Sociology

Digital Nationalism
Re-placing place in the Indian diaspora
Deepika Bahri, Associate Professor of English

Further reading

God’s Chosen Tongues
Hebrew and Arabic in the Qur’an
Devin J. Stewart, Associate Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies
Further reading


Return to Contents

The concept of transculture responds to the limitations
of some contemporary theoretical models of culture. It is
different from the understanding of the global system as a collection of “discrete worlds” or “clashing civilizations” (as in Samuel Huntington’s model). It also diverges from the older American “melting pot” metaphor, in which cultural differences are assimilated to a national norm. Finally, it departs from the multicultural model that posits aggregates of discrete subcultures (based on ethnic, racial, sexual, or other differences), each of which seeks to establish and maintain its own “pride,” its cultural specificity in the face of a homogenizing dominant culture. Rather, the transcultural approach asserts the fundamental insufficiency and incompleteness of any culture and thus its need for radical openness to and dialogue with others, and for humility rather than pride.

Merab Mamardashvili (1930-1990), a major Russian philosopher of Georgian origin, had to spend his last years in his native Tbilisi, where he suffered from the excesses of Georgian cultural and political nationalism exacerbated by the downfall of the Soviet empire. Mamardashvili sympathizes with multiculturalism as a mode of liberation from a monolithic cultural canon, but he objects to the glorification of ethnic autonomy for its own sake:

The defense of autonomous customs sometimes proves to be a denial of the right to freedom and to another world. It seems as if a decision were made for me: “you live in such an original way, that it is quite cultural to live as you do, so go on and live this way.” But did anyone ask me personally? . . . Perhaps I am suffocating within the fully autonomous customs of my complex and developed culture? . . . [It is necessary] to take a step transcending one’s own surrounding, native culture and milieu. . . . This is a primordial metaphysical act.

Transculture does not add yet another culture to the existing array; it is rather a transcendence into a “meta-cultural beyond”
in the same sense in which culture is a “meta-physical beyond”
in relation to nature. If culture positions itself outside nature, then transculture is a new globally emerging sphere in which humans position themselves outside their primary, “inborn,” naturalized cultures. By releasing us from physical limitations, culture imposes new limitations of symbolic order: its own
idiosyncrasies, manias, phobias, modes of indoctrination, and informational filters that tend to grow into a “second nature.” This petrification prompts a new process of “denaturalization,” or more precisely, “deculturalization.” Today more and more individuals find themselves “outside” of their native cultures and their ethnic, racial, sexual, ideological, and other limitations. Transculture is an open system of all symbolic alternatives to existing cultures and their established sign systems.

Of course, transculture does not fully release us from our “primary” cultural bodies, just as culture does not release us from our physical bodies. Yet each successive sphere of existence—nature, culture, transculture—is clearly irreducible to the previous one and changes its meaning. The sense of the existence of natural objects, such as stone or water, changes as they are interwoven in the context of various cultures. Similarly, the sense of the existence of cultural traditions, rituals, or symbols (such as ethnic food or a literary convention) changes as they are interwoven in the expanding transcultural context. For a contemporary New Yorker, rice has a different taste than for a medieval Chinese peasant who has never tasted anything like French Roquefort or Italian spaghetti.

As a transcultural being, I can ascribe to any ethnic or
confessional tradition and decide the degree to which I make it my own. Transculture is a mode of being, located at the crossroads of cultures. It can be described by the Bakhtinian concept of vnenakhodimost, “being located beyond.” This realm beyond all cultures is located within transculture.

For a full exposition of transcultural theory see Ellen Berry, Mikhail Epstein. Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication. St. Martin’s/Palgrave Press 1999.