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Europe in Black and White
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Immigration, Race and Identity in the 'Old Continent'
By Manuela Ribeiro Sanches, Fernando Clara, João Ferreira Duarte, Leonor Pires Martins
Intellect Ltd.Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
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The Culture Wars in Translation
Robert Stam & Ella Shohat
This essay will explore the various ways in which U. S. American, Brazilian and French intellectuals have formulated the critical race and multicultural debates – and what we can learn from these diverse formulations. The debates, we argue, must be seen in transnational terms, within a relational framework that transcends the confines of single national geographies. And, while the postcolonial debates have tended to privilege the Anglophone world, we hope to engage other locations: Latin America, Western Europe and the Middle East. We propose what we call, in the wake of Mikhail Bakhtin, a "multichronotopic" approach, which sets the culture wars against the broader backdrop of the history of an Atlantic world shaped by the violent 'encounter' between Europe and indigenous America, by the exploitation of African labour and by the evolving attempts to go beyond master race democracy towards more egalitarian social formations.
No single term adequately evokes all the intellectual work related to what we have called the 'seismic shift', whose goal was to decolonize culture, politics and scholarship. Rather than a single discourse, we find a constellation of discourses, practiced under very diverse rubrics: critical race theory, radical pedagogy, revisionist history, border theory, polycentrism, multiculturalism, interculturalism, transculturalism, alter-globalization, subaltern studies, diaspora studies, multicultural and transnational feminism, post-colonial theory, minor transnationalism, the modernity/coloniality project and so forth. Many of these terms have become sliding signifiers onto which diverse hopes and anxieties, utopias and dystopias, are projected. But, to our mind, it is not a question of overly investing in a single term, but, rather, of participating in the overall drift of an antiracist and anti-imperial project. Each designation, while problematic, casts a distinct light on the overall project. The very fact that the terms do not always 'fit' equally well into diverse national spaces is, itself, a symptom of the border-crossing nature of the debates.
Critical work is performed by hundreds, if not thousands, of scholars in many locations. While this work 'flies' under very diverse banners, and while there might be tensions between and even within their diverse modes of critique, they all share a common element: a transdisciplinary interrogation and critical engagement with the legacies of colonialism, slavery, imperialism, racism, Eurocentrism and neo-liberal globalization. They all try to destabilize the naturalized and even unconscious norms of white supremacism and Eurocentric epistemology. Our goal is to orchestrate a polylogue, as it were; an intellectual networking embracing cognate strands in different sites.
It would be wrong to think that these struggles began in the 20th century. While terms such as 'multiculturalism' and 'post-colonial' might go in and out of fashion, the issues to which they point remain burningly pertinent. The contemporary projects inherit and transform struggles traceable at least as far back as 1492. The issues raised now were present, in germ and under different names, when Jews and Muslims experienced the Reconquista and Inquisition campaigns; when indigenous people fought against the European Conquista, and voiced their criticism of European social hierarchical systems (as did the indigenous Tupi in France, as registered by Michel de Montaigne). The debates were present in the 16th-century Sepúlveda–de las Casas Controversia de Valladolid about the humanity of the 'Indians' – a debate staged almost verbatim in the recent Jean-Claude Carrière play The Controversy of Valladolid – and are still hauntingly resonant today. The debates were present when Renaissance travellers and Enlightenment philosophers talked about 'freedom' and 'natural goodness' and the master–slave dialectic. They were present when French revolutionaries debated Caribbean slavery, when American revolutionaries debated the 'federal ratio' (the 'Three-fifths of all other persons' clause of the US Constitution) and when philosophers, such as Denis Diderot, and novelists, including Jonathan Swift, denounced colonialism. The issues were also present when dislocated Africans fought enslavement and diasporic black people fought against racism. The various discursive positions for and against conquest, slavery, racism and imperialism, we argue, have been present and 'available' for a long time. Contemporary debates thus form 'revised' editions of those earlier debates, reinflected and reaccentuated for new circumstances.
Towards a multichronotopic approach
Our work towards a multichronotopic frame forms part of a wider movement manifested linguistically in the currency of such words as 'transnational', 'exilic', 'diasporic' and 'transcultural', as well as in aquatic metaphors such as "Black Atlantic" (Gilroy 1993), "circum-Atlantic performance" (Roach 1996) and "tidalectics" (Brathwaite 1992). For us, it is not a question simply of comparing cultures and debates, of placing distinct and separate intellectual histories side by side, but, rather, of discerning linked analogies and subterranean affinities, of accentuating the common currents flowing through them, highlighting the ways histories, texts and discourses interfecundate and mutually illuminate one another. Although ideas and debates have, in a sense, always travelled, in a globalized world, the very production and reception of ideas is itself transnational, with multiple locations and terminals, with many itineraries and points of departure and arrival and transit.
Throughout, our analysis is concerned with the ways that debates move back and forth across borders, the ways that they are translated, both literally and figuratively. We pose the following questions: What anxieties and hopes are provoked by words such as 'race', 'Eurocentrism', 'multiculturalism' and 'postcoloniality' in diverse national contexts? Why, for example, have French intellectuals largely ignored – at least, until recently – the entire field of postcolonial studies? What happens in the movement of debates from one geographical space and cultural semantics into another? What happens when these debates are seen through other national grids, or enter into other "cultural fields" (Bourdieu 1993)? What happens when projects initiated in one context – for example, Saidian critique of Orientalism or English-language 'whiteness studies' – travel to other geographies? How are 'out-of-place' ideas reinvoiced, recontextualized or transvocalized? What are the resistances, interferences and superimpositions that take place? How are national comparisons and contrasts mobilized? What utopic and distopic projections come into play? What is the role of national exceptionalisms, narcissisms and disavowals? Why is the concept of la République central to debates in France, but not in the USA or Brazil, even though all three countries are republics? Why is 'miscegenation' a major theme in Brazil, but less in France and in the USA, even though all three countries are, in their way, 'miscegenated' nations? Why does the term 'communitarianism' carry such a powerful negative charge in France, yet rarely figures in debates in Brazil or the USA?
Transnation/translation: a linguistic excursus
To speak of (trans)culture is to speak not of a single language, but, rather, of languages and their in-between interactions. And to speak of trans(nation) is to speak of translation. Translation theorists have moved us away from the view of translation as inferior copy of the original, turning, instead, to Bakhtinian notions of dialogic reinvoicing and reaccentuation (Bakhtin 1981), Derridean notions of dissemination (Derrida 1991) and so forth. Translation, far from being a marginal activity, is now seen as central and omnipresent in its mediating role. The crude boundaries separating so-called 'natural language' represent only one extreme on a continuum. Thus, the interlinguistic translation required for communication across different national languages has, as its counterpart, the intralinguistic 'translation' required for dialogue between diverse individuals and communities, a dialogue that becomes much more complicated in situations defined by colonial or imperial domination.
Translation is a key trope in our discussion of the travelling of the critical race/multicultural debates. But, in this case, translation is more than a trope; it is a concrete problem, or better challenge, in a very literal sense. At times, the same words in two languages might embed diverse geographical and political perspectives. Between Brazilian Portuguese and US English, the same words, due to different histories, can sometimes bring very different connotations and social intonations. The word 'America', for example, refers, for North Americans, to the USA; for Brazilians, it is just as likely to evoke the hemisphere in general, while José Martí's nuestra America ('our America') refers to Latin America – whence neologisms like estadosunidenses (United Statesians) to evoke North Americans from the USA.
The question of national language is overdetermined and power laden. To put it in vulgar terms, can the American national anthem be sung in Spanish? This question requires backtracking into the history of how constitutions see the issue of language in relation to ethnicity. The French Republic, for example, has an implicit – and, sometimes, explicit – ethnicity. The Constitution of France declares itself as the product of a specific people – that is, the French people – and Article 2 of the Constitution stipulates that "the language of the Republic is French" (Conseil Constitutionnel 1958). The Constitution is written as if 'the French people' were an ethnic group that has always existed, that it is unified and that it speaks the French language.
The USA, in contrast, although it was clearly white and European-dominated in terms of actual power, and although it was clearly oppressive to Native Americans and blacks, did not officially define itself in linguistically or even in ethnically specific terms. Despite the overriding reality of a racist slavery-based society, a certain theoretical openness was built into the conceptualization of the republic. The US Constitution does not refer to 'the American people' but to "persons" and "free persons", and when 'the people' is used, as in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution), it means the rights of every citizen, and not 'the American people'. One result of all this is a different relation to the very concept of the nation state. In France, the already existing nation – the French people – created the state, while, in the USA, the new state created the nation, as one very heterogeneous people (the Americans) dissolved their links to another people (the British). The fact that the newly founded nation was already composed of many nations – not only indigenous nations and displaced Africans, but, also, the descendants of many European nations, such as the Germans, the Dutch, the Swedes and so forth – as well as the fact that the revolution was against the British militated against the American nation ever declaring itself as essentially English. Since the British were, in a sense, the enemy, Englishness could not be placed at the core of being American. Despite this distinction, many French (and some Brazilian) commentators still refer to the Americans as 'the Anglo-Saxons'. In the same vein, Samuel Huntington (2004) denounces the 'new' immigrants, overlooking the fact that the Spanish – and the Spanish language – have been present in North America since the very beginning of European settlement, even preceding the Anglo and North European presence.
The US Constitution encodes race both through a kind of assumed, normative whiteness and through specific laws premised on the enslavement of black people and the dispossession of Native American people. Yet, the American republic per se had no ethnic definition. There was no official language, for example, and, at various historical moments, other possible languages, such as German, were seriously considered. Unlike France, both the USA and Brazil defined themselves as 'the United States'; in one case, of 'America', and, in the other, of 'Brazil'. There is a kind of submerged ethnicity in the names of the two countries, however, in that 'America' pays homage to the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci – and, thus, gives a European imprimatur to what had been an indigenous continent – while 'Brazil', some argue, was the name of a mythic island (Hy Brasil) off the southwest coast of Ireland, which only subsequently became associated with a kind of wood (pau brasil in Portuguese) sought after by European colonists. Named after one of its export products, Brazil's very naming thus prefigures its historic role as 'hewer of wood' within the racialized division of labour of the world economic system (Clarana 1913: 244).
In such situations, language becomes a contested space, a social battleground, the place where political struggles are engaged both comprehensively and intimately. Human beings do not simply enter into language as an undifferentiated master code; they participate in it as socially constituted subjects and citizens. Where there is debate, there is language, and all political questions, as we know, pass 'through' language. The intonation of the same word can differ profoundly between social groups. American history, as historians such as Eric Foner have suggested, can be seen as a struggle over the meaning of the word 'freedom' (Foner 1998). Former President George W. Bush spoke often of "spreading freedom", while Nina Simone sang "I wish I could know how it feels to be free" (1967) – but they were hardly invoking the same notion of 'freedom'. Racialized perception also becomes filtered through language. Racial pride or shame is also seen through the prism of language. In Brazil, preto ('black') originally referred to black African people, while crioulo referred to black people born in Brazil. But, now, the word negro is a term of pride for many Brazilian black people – some of whom wear T-shirts printed with the slogan cem por cento (hundred percent) negro – while preto is seen as offensive. In the USA, conversely, the term 'Negro' evokes the putative passivity of black people in the pre-Civil Rights era, while 'black' and 'African American' connote racial pride.
Language, then, is 'embedded', and 'in bed with', history. The transatlantic formation has both its own colonial–national specificities and its interconnections beyond its national–colonial boundaries. The English words 'Negro' and 'pickanninny', for example, came from the Portuguese word pequeninho for a black child, inherited from the Portuguese who participated in the slave trade before the British. Similarly, Brazil has a vast catalogue of racially descriptive terms, reflective of a heterogeneous and miscegenated society that thinks of colour not in terms of clear oppositions (black versus white), but in terms of spectra: for example, pardo (dark) mameluco (an Arabic-origin word used to refer to people of mixed white and Indian ancestry) and caboclo (black and Indian) – terms that are sometimes difficult to translate into English or French. The term 'racism' (racismo) exists in Brazil, but it is sometimes substituted by 'social exclusion', a phrase that simultaneously invokes both racism and classism. Identical words can have distinct tones and evaluations in various languages: 'miscegenation' has historically carried a strong negative odour in the USA, redolent of lynching and anti-race-mixing laws, while miscegenação in Portuguese, métissage in French and mestizaje in Spanish, as the products of assimilationist societies, have by now gained positive connotations. But, here again, the valorization of a term is conjunctural and time specific. The same racial hybridity, now celebrated as a source of national pride, was demonized by many 19th-century French and Brazilian philosophers and scientists. (Indeed, the word mulatto was derived from 'mule', suggesting an animalic analogy of infertility and degeneration.)
Excerpted from Europe in Black and White by Manuela Ribeiro Sanches, Fernando Clara, João Ferreira Duarte, Leonor Pires Martins. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd..
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