From Culturology to Transculture
From the book Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication. New York: St. Martin's Press (Scholarly and Reference Division), 1999, pp. 15-30 (Chapter 1)
The Historical Context
Culturology is a specific branch of Russian humanities that found its earliest expression in the works of Nikolai Danilevsky (1822-85) and Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), culminating in the 1960s-80s with works by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Aleksei Losev (1893-1988), Yury Lotman (1922-93), Vladimir Bibler (b. 1918), Georgy Gachev (b. 1929), and Sergei Averintsev (b. 1937). Culturology investigates the diversity of cultures and their modes of interaction and functions as a metadiscipline within the humanities, the aim of which is to encompass and link the variety of cultural phenomena studied separately by philosophy, history, sociology, literary and art criticism, etc.
The philosophy underlying culturology may be traced to the German intellectual tradition, particularly the views of Goethe, Herder, Windelband, Simmel, and Spengler on culture as an integral organism.1 From this standpoint, culture embraces various kinds of cognitive and creative activity, including politics, economics, science, the arts, literature, philosophy, and religion. All of these fields find their roots in the primordial intuition, the "para-phenomenon" of a given culture, which varies with specific historical and ethnic formations.
In Russia, this organicist concept of culture found its earliest expression in the work of Nikolai Danilevsky, a late-nineteenth-century Slavophilic thinker who half a century before Oswald Spengler outlined a certain number of cultural-historical types, including "European" and "Slavic." For Danilevsky, culture is the broadest concept that embraces four kinds of activities: religious, political, socio-economic, and cultural in the narrow sense (art, science, and technology).2 Culturological topics were widely discussed in prerevolutionary Russian religious philosophy, where Nikolai Berdiaev, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, and Pavel Florensky speculated on culture as a complementary aspect of cult, that is, as a free creative response of man to God's act of creation. According to Berdiaev, "in social life, the spiritual primacy belongs to culture. The goals of society are fulfilled in culture, not in politics and economics."3
The concept of culture proved to be central for many important thinkers in post-Stalinist Russia as an alternative to the concept of society dominant in Marxist theory. While society is divided into classes and parties, each fighting for power and supremacy, culture has the potential to unite people and transcend social, national, and historical divisions. From a culturological standpoint, culture can be defined as a symbolic responsiveness: Any new artistic work or philosophical theory introduced into the system of culture changes the meaning of all other elements, and in this way not only does the past influence the present, but the present gives shape to the past. The model of history as a unidirectional vector, which long held sway over the Soviet mentality, was challenged by the concept of culture as a multidimensional continuum on which epochs are not successive steps in humanity's progress but coexist on equal terms and give meaning to each other.
A strong challenge to Marxism in the 1960s came also from structuralism, the methodology that must be credited for propelling the concept of culture to the forefront of the humanities. Though both structuralism and culturology consciously opposed themselves to orthodox Marxism, there are clear methodological distinctions between them. The structuralist project is predominantly scientific and attempts to introduce the standard of mathematics and natural sciences into the core of humanistic research, whereas culturology, as influenced by neo-Kantian and hermeneutic traditions, is careful to emphasize the specificity of cultural phenomena as inaccessible to rigorous analysis and calculation. According to such major representatives of culturology as Bakhtin and Averintsev, the inability of the humanities to achieve formal rigor is to their advantage rather than to their detriment. Since the very object of the humanities embraces the free will and spiritual activity that escapes mathematical or naturalistic definition, the humanities elaborate their own criteria of precision and challenge scientistic approaches to culture as a system of informational codes. Thus culturology emerged in the USSR as a kind of third force in the methodological dispute between Marxism and structuralism: Abandoning social and ideological bias in its approach to culture, culturology also attempted to overcome the scientific and technological bias as another form of reductionism. The formation of culturology as a single disciplinary field occurred in the late 1960s, with the waning of the initial enthusiasm for structuralist rigor and the publication of the last works of Bakhtin and the first works of Averintsev, which were internally polemical with respect to technological rationalism. In his notes made in 1970-71, Bakhtin insisted that "[t]he study of culture (or some area of it) at the level of system and at the higher level of organic unity: open, becoming, unresolved and unpredetermined, capable of death and renewal, transcending itself, that is, exceeding its own boundaries."4
The advancement of culturology in the post-Stalinist period proved to be in consonance both with national traditions of universalism and with pluralistic and liberal modes of thinking. In culturology, "culture" is treated as a descriptive rather than a normative concept, the term itself being used both in the singular and in the plural. Culture as an integrity of disciplinary spheres presupposes the diversity of cultures as multiple national and historical types, each having its own formative principle, irreducible to others. While culturology is concerned with culture as a whole, it also recognizes the diversity of these "wholes" and is reluctant to discriminate among them in terms of value.
Thus the methodology of culturological research necessarily combines two procedures. First, it seeks to identify the broader underpinnings of diverse disciplines, to go beyond the specificity of any professional sphere. Mikhail Bakhtin, for example, in his meditations on the tasks of literary scholarship, insists that "[l]iterature is an inseparable part of culture and it cannot be understood outside the total context of the entire culture of a given epoch. . . . [N]arrow specification is alien to the best traditions of our scholarship. . . . In our enthusiasm for specification we have ignored questions of the interconnection and interdependence of various areas of culture . . . and we have not taken into account that the most intense and productive life of culture takes place on the boundaries of its individual areas and not in places where these areas have become enclosed in their own specificity."5
The second procedure presupposes a definition of cultural phenomena in terms of their historical and national specificity. If, within a given culture, various disciplinary and professional spheres are linked by a common intuition, then the uniqueness of this intuition serves to distinguish one culture from another on a global scale. This aspect of culturology was most thoroughly developed by Aleksei Losev in his extensive investigations of classic aesthetics, demonstrating that antiquity as a cultural phenomenon preserves its individuality on all levels of interpretation. Analyzing the most abstract theories of the dialectics of sameness and difference in Plato and the neo-Platonic school, Losev shows that behind these abstractions, and "penetrating all antiquity . . . , lies a powerful and inescapable intuition of a universal organism, or the intuition of all reality as a living organism."6 For Losev, the principal goal of culturological research is to perceive the uniqueness of a given phenomenon as an "expressive faceness of being" (vyrazitel'nyi lik bytiia). "In exploring any fact from the culture of classical antiquity, I did not rest until I found in it a quality that sharply distinguished it from everything that is not classical. . . . ‘Style' and 'worldview' must be integrated by any means; they must necessarily reflect each other."7
These two aspects of culturology, "diversity" and "integrity," are inseparable, but certainly their respective significance may vary within the works of a given thinker. Russian culturology, as it formed in the 1960s, found great living proponents for each aspect of the discipline in Bakhtin and Losev, both of whom had already laid the groundwork for this methodology in their earlier works of the 1920s. While Bakhtin stresses the dialogic nature of a specific culture in its internal and external differentiations, Losev is more inclined to theorize cultural identity as a multifaceted manifestation of one basic, primordial intuition.8
Culturology and Cultural Studies
The best way to introduce Russian culturology to an American audience is to juxtapose it point by point with what is known in the English-speaking world as "cultural studies."9 We will take as a point of reference Introducing Cultural Studies, Ziauddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon's lucid summary of characteristic trends in the field. Five definitions that apply to cultural studies also reveal its parallels and contrasts with culturology.
Culturology aims to examine culture as the locus of all existing and possible practices that, taken as a whole, liberate humans from their natural conditions and physical dependencies, including the dependency of the weak on the strong, that is, the relation of power. Culture is everything created by humans and, in its turn, everything that creates humans in their distinction from and irreducibility to organic nature. By introducing a symbolic dimension to power relationships, culture mediates them through the liberating practices of signification, estrangement, deferral, and erasure of biological (racial, sexual) origins. Cultural practices cannot be reduced to power relationships as such and should not be seen as solely shaped and determined by them: Such reductionism is easily compatible with an oppressive and totalitarian politics of culture as an instrument of power.
Culture exists in a social and political context but this context itself is only a partial aspect of culture and should not dominate the whole. Works of art and philosophy, spiritual practices and rituals, moral values, personal relationships, everyday practices of symbolic exchange and communication?all these multiple dimensions of culture prevent humans from being reduced to political animals. The task of culturology is to expose culture as an open totality surpassing and transcending any of its single constituents, including the political one. Culturology is the self-awareness of culture; its mission is not to govern culture through the institutions of power, as politics does, but to be its self-governing consciousness.
Culturology shares these two functions with cultural studies, but it presents culture not as the location of political criticism and action but rather as permanent dislocation of political practices through the further contextualization of their symbolic contexts. It is not only that a religious practice or an aesthetic device may be decoded to reveal an encrypted political message?alternative ways of deciphering political phenomena as encryptions of mythological or aesthetic codes would be equally relevant. Even narrow party activities may be seen through culturological prisms as refractions or paraphrases of ritualistic codes, language games, literary narratives, or psychological archetypes. Culturology does not allow any single code or discipline to be privileged over the others and to serve as the ultimate vocabulary or universal basis of interpretation. Culturology is not a "pragmatic enterprise" along with other modes of cultural activities; it is rather a "metapragmatic" consciousness that is critical of narrow pragmatism, isolationist and/or hegemonic claims of any specific practice and discourse.
In its attempt to overcome the division of knowledge and extremes of specialization, culturology most closely cooperates with cultural studies. Culturology attempts to approach culture on its own terms and to develop a holistic language that avoids lapsing into politicism, scientism, aestheticism, moralism, or the absolutization of any single aspect of culture. This is why culturology departs also from the political accentuation of culture, which is predominant in cultural studies. If all other specialists work inside their own disciplines or realms of culture, unconsciously abiding by their rules and taboos, a culturologist makes his own culture the object of definition and thereby surpasses its confines, its finiteness.
Both cultural studies and culturology pursue goals beyond pure value-free scholarship. Since cultural studies is focused on politically invested forms of culture, or even culturally disguised forms of power, the aim of this discipline is primarily critical and deconstructive. This is generally characteristic of the postmodern Western humanities, in which deconstruction became the primary methodology of cultural research. Culturology, on the contrary, is focused on the constructive potentials of culture and aims to broaden and multiply the meanings of every cultural symbol beyond its literal and pragmatic meaning. Deconstruction, at least in its conventional form of academic poststructuralism, is mostly understood as "the undoing, decomposing, and desedimenting of structures," though, according to Jacques Derrida's own intention, it "was not a negative operation. Rather than destroying, it was also necessary to understand how an ‘ensemble’ was constituted and to reconstruct it to this end. However, the negative appearance was and remains much more difficult to efface. . . . That is why this word, at least on its own, has never appeared satisfactory to me."11 Culturology is the art of explicitly positive deconstruction, which opens alternatives and free spaces within and beyond certain cultural practices.12
Culturology addresses the practices and institutions of power no less critically than cultural studies does, which is evidenced by the former's liberational message and explosive role in the networks of Soviet official culture. But culturology is not a form of political dissidentism. It does not criticize one cultural politics on behalf of another, more advanced and progressive politics. Rather it criticizes politics, as a type of discourse, as a relation of power, as a narrow pragmatism, from the standpoint of culture as a whole. Culturology is not about opposition, but about transcendence: How to transcend a given practice or theory using the symbolic capacities of culture, its infinitely rich, multileveled encodings and decodings of every human phenomenon.
Cultural studies and culturology developed almost simultaneously as the extensions of their respective cultures' distinct theoretical needs and priorities. The name "cultural studies" comes from the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, established in 1964. In 1972, the Center published the first issue of Working Papers in Cultural Studies with the specific aim "to put cultural studies on the intellectual map."
It is more difficult to date the emergence of Russian culturology. It integrated Yury Lotman and his school's works on cultural semiotics (mid-1960s), the methodological notes of Mikhail Bakhtin (1960s-1970s), the research program of Vladimir Bibler and his scientific seminar "Arche" (from 1967), and the first publications of Georgy Gachev and Sergei Averintsev (mid- and late-1960s).
The founders of cultural studies?Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall?were working-class intellectuals inspired by the Old Left and New Left ideals and heavily influenced by Marxism. By the early 1970s, Marxism had lost almost all political battles in the West and was receding into the more quiet cultural realm attempting to transform it into a new political arena. Cultural studies emerged and continued, in essence, as political studies of culture and experiments in its social transformation. Culture appeared to present a more open and accessible area for socialist experiments than economics or practical politics.
In Russia, the situation was quite the opposite: For many years the official culture had been utterly politicized and reduced to ideological and propagandistic functions. Soviet Marxism was in a position to impose on culture as a "secondary superstructure" all the power of economic and social determinations. The principal goal of Russian culturology was to depoliticize culture, to rescue it from the narrow pragmatic context where it served as an instrument of power. Culture was explored as the ultimate resource of human freedom and creativity that transcends social limits and historical determinations.
Which of these two branches of "cultural science" presents more potentials for the future? At first sight, the collapse of Soviet Marxism has eliminated the totalitarian context in which Russian culturology emerged. But is not the very collapse of totalitarianism an argument in favor of the culturological approach to culture as the metasystem that survives and transgresses all political contexts, even so powerful a one as that which dominated the Soviet Union for 70 years? The culturological approach to culture as a nonsurpassable and all-surpassing totality successfully challenged Marxist-Leninist and other politicist, or moralist, or scientist approaches that attempted to reduce culture to one of its constituents. That is why culturology has become one of the main branches of humanistic scholarship in post-Soviet Russia, in fact, the leader in the methodology of research and teaching. In many universities, departments of culturology have replaced those departments of "scientific communism" and "Marxism-Leninism" that were previously responsible for the political supervision and utilization of all other disciplines.
Culturology and Transculture13
Though culturology is a scholarly discipline, it contains some possibilities that lead beyond the realm of scholarship, into certain practices that we call "transcultural." To use Bakhtin's words, culturology approaches culture as "organic unity" that is capable of "transcending itself, that is, exceeding its own boundaries."14 Culturology takes a distanced view of culture that propels culture's own self-distancing, a disruption of its self-identity. Culturology "estranges" and "defamilarizes" culture, in the same sense in which the major Russian theoretician Viktor Shklovsky defined "estrangement" as the main technique of art. According to Shklovsky, our daily habits and perceptions tend to retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic, as if they were natural, inevitable, and predetermined. "Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. . . . And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. . . . The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object . . ."15
In the same way, culturology is a way of experiencing the culturality of culture. If art, as a part of culture, deautomatizes our perception of objects, then culturology deautomatizes our perception of art and culture themselves, exposes their artificial constructs and contingencies and thus allows us to transcend their automatism. Culturology distances and "alienates" us from the culture to which we belong by birth and education, and thus prepares us for free cultural creativity. In this transcending capacity, culturology becomes a critique not only of specific branches and disciplines within a particular culture, but of any given culture as a whole. At this point culturology grows into transcultural theory and practice. Transculture is a way to transcend our "given" culture and to apply cultural transformative forces to culture itself. Transculture is the second order of "culturality" of culture, its capacity for self-cultivation and self-transcendence. If culturology is self-awareness of culture, then transculture is self-transformation of culture, the totality of theories and practices that liberate culture from its own repressive mechanisms.
This movement of transcendence starts within culture itself, as it liberates humans from natural dependencies through the system of symbolical mediations and replacements. Such cultural categories as "taste," "love," "word" constitute the realm of human freedom from the pressures of physical hunger and lust, from the physical presence of an object, etc. Simultaneously, cultural activity creates its own system of dependencies that are peculiar to a given culture, its ethnic, racial, social, or sexual determinants. In transposing their inborn qualities into a cultural dimension, humans still reproduce many of their physical conditions and identities on this symbolic plane. That is why many cultural activities, including literature, cinema, theory, and writing in general, are still designated by natural labels, such as white and black, male and female. Even ethnic labels?Russian, German, French?still connect culture with physical conditions, geographic regions, climates, landscapes, etc. Every culture has its own idiosyncrasies, manias, phobias, ideological assumptions and restrictions, modes of indoctrination, informational filters, etc.
By transcending the limits of these "natural," or "first order" cultures, the transcultural dimension opens the next level of human liberation, now from those symbolic dependencies, ideological addictions, patriotic infatuations that belong to us as members of a certain cultural group. To use Bakhtin's words, culture is capable of "transcending itself, that is, exceeding its own boundaries."16?and therefore contains possibilities for transculture. Transculture can be defined as an open system of symbolic alternatives to existing cultures and their established sign systems.
This does not mean that all our cultural identities are to be forsaken for the sake of transcultural liberation. We cannot and should not get rid of our primary symbolic identities, which are relevant to some levels of behavior. The transition of humans from a natural to a cultural condition did not deprive them of their physical bodies; on the contrary, their bodies acquired new expressiveness and vigor through the cultivation of physical abilities and the exercise of symbolic activities, such as speaking, dancing, drawing, writing, training in various arts and trades, and sports. In the same way, transcultural activity does not deprive us of our symbolic bodies, our constitutive identities as Russians and Americans, males and females, biologists and novelists, chess players and soccer players. Transcultural practice is not a diminishment of or confrontation with our cultural selves but rather a way of expanding the limits of our ethnic, professional, linguistic, and other identities to new levels of indeterminacy and "virtuality." Transculture builds new identities in the zone of fuzziness and interference and challenges the metaphysics of discreteness so characteristic of nations, races, professions, and other established cultural configurations that are solidified rather than dispersed by the multiculturalist "politics of identity."
Although it is a theoretical extension of culturology, the transcultural model is not just a field of knowledge but also a mode of being, located at the crossroads of cultures. This transcultural dimension grows out of the potentialities of the global cultural network, seen as the next historical stage in humanity's liberation from deterministic mechanisms of both natural and cultural environments. The essential element and merit of culture is its capacity to free humans from the dictates of nature, its physical restrictions and necessities; but it is the capacity of transculture to free humans from the determinations of culture itself. Culture, by releasing us from physical limitations, imposes new limitations, of symbolic order, and transculture is the next step in the ongoing human quest for freedom, in this case liberation from the "prison house of language" and the variety of artificial, self-imposed, and self-deified cultural identities. In contrast to the European followers of Rousseau and the American proponents of a counterculture, what transculture suggests is not the escape from culture back to nature, to a primitive, precultural condition, but rather a progression beyond culture, into the postcultural condition that is technologically shaped by contemporary global communications.
Although transculture depends on the efforts of separate individuals to overcome their identification with specific cultures, on another level it is a process of interaction between cultures themselves in which more and more individuals find themselves "outside" of any particular culture, "outside" of its national, racial, sexual, ideological, and other limitations. I would compare this condition with Bakhtin's idea of vnenakhodimost, which means being located beyond any particular mode of existence, or, in this case, finding one's place on the border of existing cultures. This realm beyond all cultures is located inside transculture.
One of the prevailing arguments of contemporary cultural studies is that we are bound to the conditions and conventions of our cultures; we cannot transcend the contingencies of our sign systems. But even if we cannot rid ourselves of our "symbolic" body, we can integrate it into a more capacious transcultural dimension. Similarly, as we know, the creation of tools, signs, and values did not release humans from their physical bodies and natural instincts but added a new, "transnatural," specifically cultural dimension to their existence. Now that the boundaries of "native cultures" have become too narrow for humans, we are developing other new dimensions that we call here transcultural.
1. The term "culturology" (German "Kulturologie") was proposed, perhaps
for the first time, by the distinguished German chemist and Nobel prize
winner Wilhelm Ostwald in 1915 in his address "The System of the Sciences."
For a brief history of the term, see Leslie A. White, The Science of Culture:
A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1949:
2. N. Ia. Danilevskii. Rossiia i Evropa (1869). Moscow: Kniga, 1991: 471-472.
3. Nikolai Berdiaev. "Filosofiia neravenstva," in his book Sobranie sochinenii, in 4 volumes, Paris: YMCA-Press, vol. 4: 556.
4. Mikhail Bakhtin. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986): 135.
5. Ibid., 2.
6. A. F. Losev. Istoriia antichoi estetiki. Poslednie veka. Book 2 (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1988): 379.
7. A. F. Losev. Ocherki antichnogo simvolizma i mifologii, vol. 1 (Moscow: Izdanie avtora, 1930): 690, 693.
8. To intimate a scope and diversity of Russian culturology, I am supplying a selective bibliography at the end of this chapter.
9. In the late 1940s, the outstanding American anthropologist Leslie A. White attempted to introduce the term and concept of "culturology" into Anglo-American scholarship. Characteristically, he viewed culturology as a discipline with a larger field and intellectual capacity than sociology because "culture" itself is a broader concept than that of "society": ". . . Instead of dealing with cultural determinants upon their own level, i.e., culturologically, sociology brought them down to the socio-psychological level . . . The attempts of sociologists to explain culture in terms of ‘social process’ or ‘interaction’ failed as of course it must" (Leslie A. White. The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1949: 80, 81). At that time, H. L. Mencken, the distinguished authority on the American language, found "culturology" "a rather clumsy word, but nevertheless logical" (Ibid., 410). However, the term failed to achieve recognition in Anglo-American scholarship, obviously, for a deeper reason than mere "clumsiness." The concept of culturology, as it was elaborated by Leslie A. White and, independently, by Russian scholars, presupposes that culture is a comprehensive structure, "the extra-somatic continuum of symbol-borne events" (Leslie White) that is irreducible to social interactions and political contexts. "The explanation of culture is and must be culturological . . . 'Culturology' specifies a sector of reality and defines a science. In so doing it trespasses upon the prior claims of psychology and sociology. It does more than trespass, of course; it expropriates as well. That is, it makes it clear that the solution of certain scientific problems does not properly lie within the provinces of psychology and sociology as previously supposed, but belong to - i.e., can be solved only by - a science of culture . . . 'Sociology' . . . assimilates culture to its basic concept of interaction, making culture an aspect, or a by-product, of the social process of interaction whereas the structures and processes of human society are functions of culture" (Ibid., 393, 412, 414). In culturology, culture comprises the method, not only the object of research. The approach that dominated Anglo-American scholarship under the name of "cultural studies," on the contrary, gives priority to socio-political perspectives on culture. Thus the difference between "culturology" and "cultural studies" is methodological, not only terminological.
10. Ziauddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon in Introducing Cultural Studies, ed. Richard Appignanesi (New York: Totem Books, 1998): 9. The next four definitions are cited from the same page.
11. "Letter to a Japanese Friend" (1983), in A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, ed. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991): 272.
12. See more on the methodology of potentiation as "positive deconstruction" in the chapter "The Permanence of Newness . . . "
13. The relationship between culturology and transculture is explored more extensively in the chapter "Culture—Culturology—Transculture," in Mikhail Epstein, After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995): 280-306.
14. Mikhail Bakhtin. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986): 135.
15. Viktor Shklovsky. Art as Technique, in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Modernism Through Poststructuralism. Edited and with Introductions by Robert Con Davis (New York and London: Longman, 1986): 55.
16. Mikhail Bakhtin. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986): 135.