Embodiment, Food Ecology and Water Shortages: what do these have to do with Cultural Literacy?

On the First International Cultural Literacy in Europe Conference 16-18 April 2015, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities London

By Madeleine Campbell     

Water, observed Professor Dr Milena Žic Fuchs, should prove a rich source of inspiration for literary researchers. Yet when the European Science Foundation (ESF) issued a call for proposals on this topic, it was answered mainly by engineers, biologists, statisticians – not one proposal from the Humanities. The ESF, where Žic Fuchs was Chair of Standing Committee for the Humanities, was set up to foster cross-cultural research across a wide spectrum including the social sciences and humanities. After 40 years of stimulating European research through its networking and coordination activities, its many projects have come to an end and there is no prospect of a replacement at the EU level for this mission-oriented organization. European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST), another EU organism with a related remit, is unusual in that it is “bottom-up,” driven by the needs and proposals of member states through relevant administrative umbrellas within National Contact Points, for example Social Sciences and the Humanities (SSH). In this respect COST differs fundamentally from the European Union’s Framework Programme, which funds pan-European research along broad policy lines. Once one has navigated the maze of euro-acronyms, it becomes clear that both ESF and COST, as well as being pan-European, had/have an interdisciplinary remit that spans the Arts and the Sciences, despite the apparent misnomer. In monolingual English circles the term “science” is often opposed to, rather than associated with, the term “humanities,” which might account in part for the lack of response from the latter lamented by Žic Fuchs on the topic of water.

Leafing through the COST booklet 2014-2015 will find both completed and ongoing projects covering areas ranging from the danger to crops and public health of parakeet migration in Western Europe to the potential of sewage as a diagnostic tool for urban populations, the latter offering discourse worthy of a postmodern Lautréamont. Of particular interest are the COST Actions categorized as Trans-Domain, described as “an extension of interdisciplinary research” where “transdisciplinary research can lead to the evolution of [new] disciplines” and they include topics that, with a little imagination, may yield significant outcomes for comparative literature and translation, such as “Colour and Space in Cultural Heritage,” or “Time in Mental Activity.” Although not generally thought of as a potential source of funding in cultural or literary studies, COST may well prove to be relevant to, for example, innovative translation projects and with the new open call procedure under way, now may be the time to start exploring this avenue for those with large, interinstitutional and interdisciplinary ambitions.

Such ambitions are evident in the Cultural Literacy in Europe (CLE) initiative, whose steering committee published an ESF-COST Science Policy Briefing in January 2013 and a volume of seventeen essays, From Literature to Cultural Literacy, coedited by Naomi Segal and Daniela Koleva (2014). CLE also held their first Conference in London in April 2015.  Over two days of keynotes, papers and passionate exchanges at Birkbeck College about the future of Cultural Literacy in Europe, the question organizers wanted participants to debate was: “How can Literary and Cultural Studies (LCS) contribute to solving major challenges of Europe today?” However, in contrast with literary studies, where discussion of, for example, “engaged” literature might tend to involve topics revolving around issues of politics and identity, at this conference the four parallel panel sessions covered Cultural Memory, Migration & Translation, Electronic Textuality, and Biopolitics, Biosociality and the Body; the latter theme focused on the dimension of the human as bio-social animal and body on a fragile planet. This explicit inclusion of the body as both a virtual and physical dimension of culture seems of a piece with Marina Warner’s apposite comment in her William Matthews Lecture in June 2015, as previewed in the Guardian: “several of the writers we read are nomadic, willingly or unwillingly part of the contemporary world’s diasporas, while imaginatively, they inhabit places far and wide besides those which the body occupies or birth allotted.”

At a time when the Humanities in general, and Literary and Cultural Studies in particular, are under increasing pressure to justify themselves, it was announced that the CLE initiative that organized this Conference was, like its sponsor the ESF, reaching the end of its cycle. There was therefore a sense of urgency, as well as rigorous scholarly enquiry in the buzz of committed researchers coming together from all corners of Europe and beyond to exchange thoughts and formulate an action plan.

When Professor Maureen Freely, Chair of English PEN and of the Faculty of Arts at Warwick University asked the rhetorical question: “What is Cultural Literacy?,” the tactical need for a short slogan that “sums up” cultural literacy and introduces it in societal discourse was mooted, citing as example Zygmunt Bauman’s seminal mantra “Converse or Perish.” Rather than further institutionalize concepts of culture, the working group in which I participated to discuss this question concluded that we ought to think at the dynamic level of transnational and transregional encounters, as opposed to the more static concept of heritage. The plenary identified the need to link research and teaching at the interface of disciplines, and to network across both disciplines and borders. One example of best practice cited was the Monash and Warwick Erasmus Mundus-funded programme to promote student exchanges between these two universities. A related conclusion of the working group I attended was the imperative to move away from the monolingual, native speaker model of attainment in higher education.

A natural consequence of this shift in emphasis involves foregrounding the role translation has to play in LCS. Translated texts tend to be opaque and demand “an active response,” as noted by Loredana Polezzi, a member of the Conference Steering Committee who chaired the Translation and Migration Panel. As such their reading invites individual and collective “microspection,” as defined by Professor Michael Cronin of Dublin University, in the local and situated present. Further aspects of this question were debated from various perspectives during this panel’s sessions, when Michael Cronin for example likened translation ecology to food ecology and argued against the “hylomorphic” mass production model that imposes a semantic regime of “identicality,” producing the same thing over and over again. In his abstract he stressed that, similar to the importance of sourcing food locally for a sustainable ecology, “a commitment to the situatedness of place and the preeminence of context must underline any form of translation practice.”

Dr Nick Monk of Warwick University, Associate Professor and Director of the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) and Gabriel García-Ochoa of Monash University took a practice workshop on cultural difference and the ways in which we tend to recognize such differences. Organized in pairs or in small groups, we undertook a series of embodied exercises in which we adopted, knowingly or not, different levels of social status. In one exercise we drew playing cards from one to ten and displayed them on our foreheads without viewing them first: the lower the number, the lower the status. I drew a card with low status and, from the shunning that ensued, quickly recognized colleagues of the same rank: the higher ranked participants’ reactions led us to consider why we were different from them, rather than why they were different from us. This distinction, based on the concept of the “self-reflexive approach,” argued Nick Monk, may appear subtle, but is increasingly relevant in HE today.

Professor Aleida Assmann, of the University of Konstanz shared her ongoing research “Resonance and Impact: towards a Theory of the Emotions in Cultural Memory.” Aleida Assman charted patterns of emotional trauma through their cultural figuration in the media, in terms of both “pre-mediation” or “re-mediation,” citing for example how 9/11 re-triggered memories of Holocaust events for Jewish people and, for Americans, memories of Pearl Harbor. It might also be argued, in keeping with the theme of the Conference Panel on Biopolitics, Biosociality and the Body, that the impact of strong affect could literally be inscribed on the body to be passed on to future generations (in a possible extension to the current field of epigenetics) and this might prove an example where societal research would benefit from a cross-over between literary theory and bio-genetic studies.

One output of the 2016 London Conference was the formulation of the “London statement,” which reiterates the definition of Cultural Literacy given in the Steering Committee’s 2013 policy paper as  “an ability to view the social and cultural phenomena that shape our lives – bodies of knowledge, fields of social action, individuals or groups, and of course cultural artefacts – as being essentially readable.” The London Statement also confirmed the formation of the CLE Forum for LCS research, and its newly enlarged Core Group held its first meeting in November 2015 to start planning the next international Conference. As a follow-on planning event, a workshop on the Cultural Literacy of Migration: Affects, Memory, Concepts is soon to be held in Poland (Warsaw 18-19 May 2016) to introduce and anticipate the main Cultural Literacy in Europe Forum conference at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IBL PAN) in 2017. The aim of the workshop is to jointly map and delineate research areas and research directions, which could be of common interest and would then constitute a core substrate for the 2017 Conference.

Understanding contemporary migration in European societies requires reading it consistently and methodically as a literary phenomenon. Issues will be discussed in four panels dedicated to different aspects of migration:

  1. Bodily and affective experiences of relations between migrants and locals.
  2. Reading representations of migrants in literature, popular culture and the media of the host country, and vice versa: reading analogical representations of locals in immigrants’ cultural output.
  3. (Re-)readings of the past in contemporary discussions on migration. How the past is used to explain political agendas and attitudes towards migrants.
  4. Migration as a paradigm for the humanities. In what way can philosophical notions, or concepts in sociology of science on migration be used to shed more light on the source phenomenon?

It is hoped that these workshop panels will in turn help the Conference Steering Group to focus in on pertinent domains and themes to draw up the cfp for the 2017 Conference, also to be held in Warsaw under the aegis of IBL PAN.

A list of partner organisations, abstracts for the four panels of the London 2015 Conference, speaker bios and the London Statement can be found on www.cleurope.eu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *