Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. März 2001 Editorial

Report from working group 2
"The Praxis of Transdisciplinarity: Towards a Global Aesthetics"

Stuart Sillars (Bergen)

Norsk Missionstidende (Norwegian Mission Times) is a magazine containing 32 pages.(1) It is the journal of the Norwegian overseas mission, an organisation devoted to spreading the word, in the form of Norwegian Lutheran Gospels, among African and Asian non-Christians. As an image of its own times it reveals much of contemporary attitudes towards redemption, belief and the role of the colonist. At the moment when the sun rises on the horizon, a full-sailed clipper comes majestically into view in the offing, the placing of the two suggesting that the sun of righteousness and the appearance of a Norwegian vessel are nearly identical. In the foreground, beneath a convincingly exotic palm tree, are the figures of a black man and woman. The man is standing with arms outstretched to welcome the ship, the woman kneeling and supporting a baby with one hand while the other is spread out in similar welcome. Above, the figure of an angel - discernibly so because of its wings and pure whiteness - hovers above them on the branch of the tree. The conventional and implicit symbolism seems clear. The ship is bringing salvation in the form of the angel, who will remain with the natives and protect them long after the ship's departure. Read thus, the image is representative of a culture at its apogee: Norway is shortly to become a nation state, and is taking its place among the western democracies in spreading civilisation and the word of God amongst what Kipling, in a poem only a little older than the image, has called 'lesser breeds without the Law'.(2)

For early twenty-first century readers, the text can have a range of other significations. The ship represents not so much the word of God but the forces of economic exploitation of the natural and human wealth of the island; the sun has overtones of Der Untergang des Abendlandes- Spengler's book(3) was to appear only twenty years after the image, but for the post modern imagination the ahistoricism is conceptually quite valid as a reading stance. That the picture is dominated by a horizon reminds us of Gadamer's stress(4) on the need to adjust our own situation to that of the original readers as mush as it stresses the impossibility of the task. The three figures in the foreground may be read not so much as natives in need of enlightenment but as an alternative Holy Family, who are already so indoctrinated into the alien culture that they have subsumed unto themselves the iconography of one of its most dominant images, and are already symbolically - as well as literally and in their postures - turning their backs on their native cultures. And above, with an uncertainty of perspective that makes it unclear where exactly it is located, the figure of the angel becomes an image of the post-Kantean metaphysical vacuum, unable to perch on a tree or settle on land because logical positivism has denied its existence.

These are, if you like, two caricature readings of the image, in a method that is as much a parody of New Historicist random association of texts as a version of mediæval ars predicandi in choosing an image that will later reveal itself as of supreme relevance to the homiletic. But it is a worthwhile place to start because it offers us a visual mnemonic of some of the sheer complexities that are involved in the discussion of a global aesthetic. A deep equation between the aesthetic and the political is implicit in the appearance of the vessel, whose purpose, whether trading or imperial, is clearly part of the culture's material base. The imagery of the trees and islands in the foreground, in its apparent strangeness, reminds us - with the aid of Edward Said(5) - that orientalism is a perspectival construct. And the aerial white figure in the middle ground, whose location is so imprecisely choreographed, suggests an uncertainty of belief that undermines even what we might term the original or instinctive reading of its meaning: it is, with apologies to M. H. Abrams, a deconstructive angel.(6)

This polarity of readings, as well as showing the way in which approaches to texts have changed in the near-century since the publication of the image, suggests a difficulty peculiar to our present situation. Where globalisation was, in earlier periods, a matter of the civilised centre moving outwards towards the savage periphery, it is now regarded with extreme caution by many, who see it as a version of exploitation and corruption far more insidious than the bringing of syphilis to Australia or the imposition of dual standards of sexual morality on Bikini Atoll. Furthermore, the categories of centre and periphery are themselves invalid: as Said defines the absurdity of 'Orientalism', and as we realise that Mercator's projection is only one, and not necessarily the best, of all possible worlds, the notion of one nation having the right to infuse its beliefs into another - however apparently civilised, however morally superior they seem - is further called into question. The categories of centre and periphery, in short, themselves stand revealed as defined only by matters of perspective.

There is one further way in which the image invalidates any certainties about the globalisation process. We may presume that a contemporary reader would have taken it as a simple piece of narrative illustration, a freeze-frame on the path to redemption in the same naturalistic style as an illustration by H. R. Millar to an Edith Nesbit children's story,(7) which would have appeared at almost the same time in England. Today, accustomed to the paradoxical logic of the decentered text, we question the viewpoint: where are we, and who are we, that we see the events depicted from behind the three black figures? The situational logic would imply that we are, like them, inhabitants of the island, awaiting the good news. Yet if this is the case, we are awaiting also the imposition of an alien culture: the implication is that we, the sophisticated, western believers, are about to be redeemed and colonised by forces from without. Just as, at the end of The Tempest, Prospero's plea to the audience to 'Let your indulgence set me free',(8) revealing that he has been colonised by the audience just as surely as he himself has colonised Caliban, we are presented with a disturbing visions of ourselves as mirror of ourselves, as, if you like, deconstructed mortals.

This is more than a problem for the aesthetic sense: it forces us to confront issues political, mercantile, and personal, all issues that focus on a renewed definition of the centre and the periphery, in which the extremes are not obliterated but rather emphasised by their each sharing the other's category. In practical terms, too, the shift raises a problem for the academic, the critic, the intellectual: where do I stand?

Well, the image is probably now exhausted of all its likely contributions to this discussion and we should now rightly move on to what is more properly the business of these pages: to introduce the series of papers that were given as part of a discussion of the idea of a global aesthetic within a conference that was concerned largely with aesthetic matters. It is not only since Foucault and Benjamin that that the conjugal rites between the political and the aesthetic have been marked and celebrated: it should therefore not surprise us that many of the contributors spoke of or from a sense of uncertainty, if not outright dismay, about the process of globalisation. Shortly before the conference, riots took place in Seattle against the self-appointed eminences grises of the IMF: shortly after, the collapse of Milosevic's regime in the Serbia brought what seemed to be a new hope of independence to the city and nation. We celebrated, alongside Marija Mitrovic whose contribution on appears in this collection, the storming of parliament in Belgrade and the liberation of the country through legitimate, democratic elections.

This is a personal and markedly unacademic note, but it is right to sound it here because the two cannot exist separately. Many of those present had far more immediate experience of the forces of global influence and change than I: Peter Horn in reading his poems in a football stadium in Johannesburg is the most forceful instance of this. But to separate the personal - the human - from the political and the academic is to deny the interconnectedness of things which is a psychological equivalent of globalisation itself. For me, in chairing the group, the enduring memory will be as much of a boat trip along the fjords where I talked with people from Russia, Rumania, Texas, and a number of countries that are emerging from the shadow of the prefix 'former', as of intellectual debate and enquiry in the formal sessions.

All of the essays presented here share uncertainty and mistrust of the opportunities for feral capitalism offered by globalisation: this is a monitory pedal-note that sounds throughout. That the approaches taken within them - the divisions offered above the pedal, if you will - are various and wide-ranging shows that the globalisation of the intellect and imagination is richly diverse. Peter Horn explores the relations between the centre and the periphery through the metaphor and actuality of chaos theory, and concluding by seeing the possibility of mutual nurture as the two extremes constantly redefine themselves and each other. Anette Horn relocates the globalisation process within the demands and potentials of a global community after theory, where Foucauldian imposition of power through cultural technologies is displaced by an awareness of the complex and beautiful within a world of local difference.

Mikhail Blumenkrantz examines the politically levelling force of media intention and actuality, while two contributors look at specific areas within this larger concept: Marija Mitrovic explores the complex linguistic, political and literary boundaries of Serbian and Croat literatures, and Vladimir Papousek discusses the theoretical stances of Rene Wellek - for a certain generation the first incarnation of literary theory - towards Czech literature.

Matthias Schubnell chooses to examine what we might call the vertical dimension of globalisation - the relation with a quite literal, and by now seriously endangered, great globe itself. In so doing, he represents an ecocriticism that, often in partnership with new world views offered by writers from other cultures - in Schubnell's case, Native American,(9) in Jonathan Bate's, someone as apparently canonical as William Wordsworth(10) - voices with sustained and compassionate intelligence the need to protect and nurture the fragile fabric that we hold in custody for the future. My own piece moves in another direction - towards the changes in reading and understanding, and the nature of the text itself, that are brought about by electronic globalisation when it moves from being merely a transnational shopping conduit towards a new aesthetic entity in which process, not finite text, is the defining characteristic.

Taken together, all of these pieces represent a series of definitions of academic and personal standpoints. Do we, like the implied viewer of the Norsk Missionstidene image, stand outside, as decentered commentators? Do we, like Matthew Arnold's benighted Empedocles(11), collapse under the futility of engagement? And how, as academics, do we respond to the global possibilities of the so-called 'virtual university' that offers courses on-line? If the global production of these essays is to have any validity, that depends upon you - yes, you at the back there, hypocrite lecteur: put down your Coke can and listen. The publication of the essays as cybertext allows the opportunity of endless exchange, debate, argument. If the international debate made possible by the technology of this production is to be successful, it must be genuine and equal: otherwise, like those unscrupulous university directors who recruit from emerging nations merely to swell their coffers, we shall be rather like the occupants of the beautiful ship sailing into the exotic lands shown in Norsk Missionstidende. Except that, whereas they thought they were bringing redemption, we cannot pretend any longer that our motives are as pure: for globalisation read g£obalisation.

© Stuart Sillars (Bergen)

TRANSINST       table of contents: No.9


(1)  No 1, January 1904: front cover. Author's collection.

(2)  'Recessional', 1897.

(3)  Spengler, Oswald. Der Untergang des Abendlandes: Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte. Munich: Beck, 1923. The first English translation was The Decline of the West: Form and Actuality, trans. Charles Atkinson. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1926.19.

(4)  Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Translated by William Glen-Doepel, John Cumming and Garrett Barden. London: Sheed and Ward, 1975.

(5)  Said, Edward. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

(6)  Abrams' article 'The Deconstructive Angel' (Critical Inquiry 3, 1977, 425-38) is the most cogent argument proposing the false logic implicit within deconstruction - if language is inherently unstable, and so cannot contain meaning, how may it be used to assert that language is unstable?

(7)  For example, 'The Psammead', which appeared in serial form in The Strand Magazine in 1902 and as a book in 1906.

(8)  The Tempest. Ed. Frank Kermode. The Arden Shakespeare. Methuen: London, 1954, rev 1962. Epilogue, 20.

(9)  Schubnell, Matthias. N. Scott Momaday: the Cultural and Critical Background. Norman, OK and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987

(10)  Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. London: Routledge, 1991.

(11)  In 'Empedocles on Etna'. First published 1852. Conveniently available in The Poetical Works of Matthew Arnold. Ed C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry. London: Oxford University Press, 1950, 406-443.

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