Aims and objectives
Authors, filmmakers, and other cultural producers whose work speaks of and to transnational communities are increasingly prominent. Axes' are lines of communication, trade and travel which connect pairs of significant sites within the multicentred networks of transnational communities: e.g. London-Delhi, or Berlin-Istanbul. Axial writing' thematises past and present traffic along axes; it also forms part of that traffic itself.
This comparative project investigates domestic and diaspora Indian, Turkish, Caribbean and Irish axial writing: new and recent work in literature, performance, and film. It examines its production, promotion, public reception, and institutional uses, especially in cultural policy, in Britain and in Germany. The project also examines the reception and uses of diaspora culture in India, Turkey, Ireland and Jamaica; and it investigates the development of diaspora networksof transnational cultural production and consumption, which may remain largely invisible in national public spheres at one or both ends of the axis.
How do axial writers negotiate with public and private sector institutional policies, and the demands of disparate audiences, in pursuing their cultural political agendas in two or more countries? How do the asymmetric patterns of transnational cultural traffic affect the ways in which transnational communities are represented both to themselves and to others? To what degree does axial writing reflect, anticipate, or even shape diaspora cultural change? How effectively does it challenge dominant conceptions of national cultures from diaspora positions?
The project involves collaboration between specialists in several disciplines and regions. Cultural traffic on the selected axes will be surveyed on the basis of existing literature and interviews with prominent axial writers, and with other persons who function as nodes' linking national and transnational cultural networks (agents, publishers, media producers, gatekeepers to funding opportunities,etc.). On each axis, detailed case-studies based on interviews, archival and observational research will then be undertaken on: 1) careers of axial writers, their aesthetic and political strategies, responses to and uses of their work; 2) collaborative cultural political projects which mobilise transnational networks (e.g. publishing and media ventures, festivals, cultural exchanges, multicultural education initiatives); 3) practices of cultural policy in relation to such projects, at several levels: local/municipal (London, Berlin and other cities), national (Britain, Germany), and supranational (EU). Findings will be collaboratively analysed.
Academic and Policy implications
The project will result in a jointly authored book, articles, and a volume of conference proceedings. These will address both social science and humanities constituencies, encouraging the rapprochement of disciplines in a comparative approach to contemporary global cultural change. They will be of value to users including those working in the culture and media industries, and in national and supranational (especially EU) cultural policy, enabling them to compare recent developments in a range of transnational contexts.
Axial writing imaginatively spans the distances across which transnational communities are dispersed. In literature, cinema and other artforms, it thematises traffic on the routes or axes which connect localities of diaspora origin and settlement; the work also in fact travels on these axes. It promotes dialogues which can engage national just as much as diaspora cultures: dialogues about travel and translation, ethnic identities and cultural syncretisms, historical legacies and present hopes and fears. It provokes questions about the shifting meanings of belonging and roots, home and abroad, local and global, here and there. It draws attention to factors affecting cultural changes in and around diasporas: issues of power and hierarchy, representation and inclusion; differences of class, gender, sexuality, and generation; differences of geographical and social places and trajectories; and mixed intra- and inter-ethnic affiliations.
Some current examples prominent in the English-speaking world include:
Biographical predictors for producers of axial writing include different countries of childhood and adult residence; family histories of migration; and a travelling professional life, in which time is regularly divided between two or more localities which are connected by axes of historical and contemporary diaspora movements. Axial writers simultaneously speak of and to (and may be heard as speaking for) several public constituencies: a diaspora community, a diaspora homeland, and one or more countries of settlement. They may or may not be recognised by relevant cultural authorities as contributing to world culture.
By no means all axial writers achieve prominence in national or international cultural mainstreams. Much axial writing only circulates on networks of cultural traffic which are specific to diasporas (especially if it uses non-European languages): it remains invisible beyond these networks, or outside diaspora-homeland circuits. Questions about the recognition of particular kinds of axial writing, in particular cultural institutions and networks, are central to this project. But the production, marketing, and public reception (including the teaching) of all axial work makes important contributions to informing public debates on multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and cultural effects of globalisation.
Axial critical intellectuals in (or sometimes in) Britain - such as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Kobena Mercer, Homi Bhabha, and others - have forged many of the theoretical concepts which underpin these debates. Indeed, many axial creative writers are also academics working in fields related to this project. Hence the project is concerned with highly self-conscious and expertly informed cultural and cultural political agents, whose analysis of their own position in relation to transnational communities may even extend to a principled critique of the terms in which this project and/or the Transnational Communities Programme is framed.
A British-German comparison
Debates on multiculturality and globalisation are hardly confined to any one territory, but they are conducted in very distinct ways in different national and linguistic contexts. English has long been a global language, though its potential as a planetary lingua franca is perhaps only now being realised, prompting concerns for the future of both historically anglophone and other linguistic cultures. The Booker Prize is a prime example of an institution which makes global English writing highly visible in British culture. Axial writers are always in the short-list and often win it: notably Rushdie, Roy, and many others of various ethnic and national backgrounds. But it might be argued that since the prize is awarded for a novel in English from Britain or New Commonwealth countries, so long as it is published in London, its effect is largely to maintain the hegemony of London/England/Britain as the metropolitan centre over peripheral literary cultures. On the other hand, it certainly transforms the perceived identity of the centre. Rushdies status as Britains best-known and the worlds most controversial writer, and his numerous cultural political interventions, provide a focus for many debates on the relationships between British majority and minority cultures, between transnational western and Islamic or more broadly eastern cultures, between North and South, and more recently (prompted by his anthology of Indian fiction and its controversial foreword) between anglophone and other South Asian literary cultures. He has been crucial in enabling the recent boom in Indian and other South Asian writing in English, most of it by axial writers: of a dozen Indian novelists recently featured in The New Yorker, only Roy is now resident in India, and she too has lived and worked (as a screenwriter) in London.
Internationally very celebrated axial writers (and axial post-colonial critics) represent only one dimension of a South Asian diaspora culture which is increasingly significant in many domains of British cultural life. Its prominence is due not least to the growing economic significance of the diaspora. Besides literature, work by people of South Asian extraction increasingly represents Britain abroad, and challenges notions of English monoculture at home, in cinema (where both Channel 4 and the BBC have co-funded productions of original screenplays and adaptations of prose fiction by numerous South Asian and other ethnic minority writers); in popular music (where South Asian, African, Afro-Caribbean and other postmigrant youth is increasingly visible both in chart acts, and in a range of trans-ethnic subcultural forms); in other live performance arts, and in radio and television (the ethnic comedy series Goodness Gracious Me! by Meera Syal and others is a recent example). At the same time, cultural imports from South Asia are achieving mainstream status, as witnessed by the recent appearance, for the first time, of a Bollywood film in the British box office top ten.
Such developments have prompted a shift in critical and policy discourse from ethnic minority cultures to cultural diversity in Britains leading cultural institutions. In 1997 the British Council (with Arts Council collaboration) launched a project entitled Re-inventing Britain, with a Manifesto by Homi Bhabha. Here he argues that the new cosmopolitanism (witnessed by the explosion of creative work ... from young practitioners from ... so-called minority communities now living in Britain, in Stuart Halls words) has already rendered the problem of identity passé, and poses other questions more urgently: among them, questions of citizenship in a context of transnational migration, and questions about the relation between consensus and community within secular intellectual culture (see www.designandart.co.uk/studies/stdsinv.htm). It might be concluded that minority, marginal work is becoming crucial to the British states efforts to re-brand this country as a model of multiculturalist practice in the global cultural arena.
In German-speaking Europe (the worlds second largest publishing market by language), related developments are taking place. The 1990s have seen German writers and filmmakers of immigrant (especially Turkish) extraction winning open national prizes for the first time. This represents an escape from a cultural ghetto which previously confined their role to that of ethnic minority advocates (indicated by the institution, in the 1980s, of a literary prize reserved for non-Germans writing in German). The new self-confidence of such hybrid writers challenges dominant conceptions of German cultural identity. But Germany (and Austria and Switzerland) maintain a legal fiction that they are not countries of immigration with large, socially diverse, permanent diaspora populations of recent non-European origin. The work of minority, migrant or postmigrant writers, filmmakers and other artists using German (or using diaspora languages with translation into German in mind) still receives little public attention in German-speaking Europe, despite the prize-winners. But it receives ever more attention abroad. German writers of Turkish extraction such as Özdamar, Senocak and Zaimoglu are translated into other European languages, and their new books are quickly reviewed in journals like Newsweek and The Economist, as well as being widely studied on campuses outside Germany. Germanys cultural representation abroad is sensitive to this, and more broadly to the perceived value of cultural diversity as an asset when foreign investment is at stake. As a result, Berlin and other cities are promoting themselves as multicultural metropoles, and Goethe Institutes are sending non-German writers in German on tour, even while ethnic non-Germans born and raised in Germany continue to be denied automatic German or dual citizenship, and full political rights.
In a European context, the cases of Britain and Germany therefore merit comparative investigation, both as hosts to diaspora populations, and as globally significant centres of cultural production and dissemination which function as nodes in a wide variety of transnational networks - official, commercial, diaspora and other. Both states domestic and foreign cultural policies apparently instrumentalise selected kinds of axial writing, in ways which may conflict with the interests and agendas of its producers, and which also inevitably fail to represent the full diversity of axial work. How are these contradictions managed and negotiated by all concerned?
This project directs attention to the field of professional cultural work - in various artforms - other than routine mass media production, and rather than informal popular and everyday culture. Writing is used here as shorthand for cultural production by professionals with aesthetic and intellectual ambitions. The project covers prose fiction and non-fiction for the general reader; drama, screenplays and cinematography; poetry and song. The specific artforms and genres important for diaspora expression vary between contexts. The focus on individually authored work is appropriate because such work is central in national institutions of cultural policy and education, and in public debate. The mobile diaspora intellectuals who produce and/or promote axial writing are crucial brokers between national and diaspora cultures. They help to ensure that the testimonies and imaginings enshrined in axial cultural artefacts influence wider theoretical and political discourses.
The axes of this study
The project focuses on two main axes of transnational cultural traffic: traffic connecting Europe (especially Britain) and South Asia (especially India); and traffic connecting Europe (especially Germany) and Turkey.
The case of Turkey and the Turkish (and Kurdish and Turkish Cypriot) diaspora(s) is not accidentally prominent within the Transnational Communities Programme. In political and cultural political terms, it represents an important test-case of Europes internal and contiguous other, and the international negotiation of European policy towards diasporas.
The Turkish diaspora in Europe is broadly comparable to the South Asian diaspora in Europe in several respects. Both are a) constituted largely by mass labour migration in the 1950s-1970s, followed by family reunions and large-scale sojourning or migration on the part of students, entrepreneurs and professionals, and refugees; b) marked by religious differences from the host societies; c) implicated in the long-term histories of European expansion, orientalism and westernisation; d) marked by major internal ethnic, religious and ethnonational differences or communal tensions, as well as other political and social differences; e) in recent postmigrant generations, marked by striking upward social mobility (though this is far from universal, and many remain in positions of social exclusion), and by increasingly complex patterns of return, repeat and transversal migration.
In all these features, the Turkish and South Asian diasporas in Europe appear comparable. To what extent have comparable practices of transnational cultural production, distribution and consumption developed in these contexts? To what extent are the agendas, strategies and practices of writers working on these axes similar, whether they are working in metropolitan or other languages, and whether they are achieving recognition in European mainstreams, in part of the diaspora or throughout it, in the homeland, or in some combination of these? What social and cultural factors determine these outcomes in terms of recognition in particular cases, be they writers, texts, artforms or genres? In particular, what factors shape the processes of selective recognition of axial cultural work by national mainstreams? What is common, and what is nationally specific about the responses of British and German cultural establishments and cultural policy makers towards the growth of axial cultural activity? What is the role of cross-European debates in current policy formation? And what is the role of transatlantic debates, particularly in relation to the dominance of North American culture generally, and North American models of multiculturalism in particular, in European societies?
As already indicated, the scope for comparative work on axial cultures is immense. The project sets the primary terms of comparison in a wider frame by examining two further axes: that which connects Europe (especially Britain) to the Caribbean, and that which, within Europe, connects Ireland to Britain.
The Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Britain has been a crucial source of theorisations of diaspora identities and cultural practices embracing the Black Atlantic. Its intellectuals play a leading role in mediating American, African and European public debates in this field, both as academics and as creative writers, whether in the traditional genres of European high culture, in popular culture, or in cross-over forms like dub poetry: forms which defy the elite/popular distinction, challenging the privileged authority granted to written texts over vocal performance in Eurasian intellectual traditions. The diversity of Caribbean societies sets the axes linking certain of them to Britain in the context of several other transatlantic and wider connections, which are being highlighted by certain recent efforts to promote a more pluralist representation of Caribbean culture by publishing translations of work from Spanish, French, Dutch and associated creoles, by writers residing in the Caribbean or in the diaspora. The Caribbean is a nodal region for the multi-ethnic transnational communities of Spanish, Dutch and French speakers, and Black African diasporas old and new; while a figure in world literature like V S Naipaul also recalls the importance of the South Asian diaspora, in the Caribbean microcosm of global cultural differentiation and hybridisation. Hence the Caribbean case is crucially important to any comparative analysis.
Ireland, by contrast, is very mono-ethnic. The inclusion of the Irish diaspora in the project aims to offset an otherwise limiting focus on differences commonly marked in modern European parlance as racial, in terms of pigmentation and phenotype; or, alternatively, as pertaining to the historical frontiers of Christian European civilisation. The Republic has recently become a country of immigration - especially for former migrants and their offspring, but also for mobile writers and artists of all nationalities, who profit from an imaginative tax regime. Thus the Saga Prize, for a first novel by a British or Irish person of African heritage, is based in the Republic, despite the countrys tiny Afro-diaspora population. The cultural establishments of Ireland and the UK are closely intertwined, traffic to and fro has been intense for centuries, and the hegemony of English long since drove the Irish language into a partly voluntary near-extinction. Yet cultural differences remain very salient on this impacted, proximate axis. Irish diaspora writers now seem more likely than ever to foreground their Irishness. Do such gestures amount only to speculation on ethnic chic, or niche marketing? Are the writers allied with other cultural political efforts to dethrone dominant white ethnicities in national and transnational cultures?
Axial cultural producers share an ambivalent positioning in relation to national cultures at both poles of the axis. They may suffer exclusion, or condescension and exoticisation, both here and there. Alternatively, those who commute along an axis - shuttling between Berlin or Hamburg and Istanbul or Ankara, or between London or Birmingham and Delhi or Calcutta, as many people now do, including numerous cultural producers - may be able to exploit advantages of plural cultural capital over mono-ethnic, mono-national, or monoglot writers. How are the rewards of difference, mobility and opportunities for syncretic innovation weighed against traumas of homelessness, exposure to racism and xenophobia, and the burden of representation - the pressure to speak on behalf of putative communities of others as these are constructed by mainstream public perceptions? How do axial writers negotiate their position in representing a different ethnicity or nation both here and there, while also representing a diaspora in both localities?
Many European/diaspora axial writers who achieve mainstream recognition escape the axis by relocating, most often to the USA. This move is frequently imagined in European axial writing, and perhaps it represents the desired trajectory of many socially mobile postmigrants in Europe. Does it implicate writers in the continuing extension of Americas world-wide cultural hegemony? Does it sever them from their original diaspora and national constituencies? Or does it expand their opportunities to intervene in the cultural politics of those constituencies?
Axiality is a position from which cultural political interventions not only can but must be made. Just as the work of national writers constructed national cultures as imagined communities over the past two centuries, axial writers may now be engaged in constructing new, transnational cultures as imaginative sources of identity. Whether or not particular writers, working in different settings, see this as their role, is an important matter for research. So too is the effectiveness of their efforts, so far as this can be judged from the reception of their work. At the very least such writers are seeking to transform national cultures by obliging them to accommodate diaspora identifications. Those selected for study in this project are, then, not merely professional writers. They are actively engaged in cultural political projects involving transnational networking and collaboration, mobilising a range of cultural and other resources, and negotiating with a range of cultural and political actors and institutions in several localities.
Axial writers therefore function as nodes linking disparate national and transnational, informal and formal networks (a function shared of course with others in the cultural arena). Thus they offer researchers access to first-hand accounts of the interactions of specifically ethnic transnational networks with other networks, and with public and private institutions, in at least two countries.
Models of defining diaspora dispositions on the basis of national or ethnic origins have become highly questionable: they do not account for the complexities of multicentred biographies. Cultural policy at state and local levels in many European countries has not yet adjusted to the realities of transnational traffic. It maintains bounded notions of rootedness and belonging, positing clearly distinguishable, homogeneous cultural identities. Multiculturalism as a policy watchword often reinforces rather than subverts separatist agendas. Classic diaspora self-representations have frequently responded to such institutional policies by perpetuating rhetorics of cultural purity and authenticity. But because axial writing is predicated on experiences of repeat journeying, and hence the mutual relativisation of local cultural agendas, it is in a good position to resist such rhetorics. Certainly, axial writers creative and cultural political work serves as a lens to refract a number of critical issues in the cultural arena. These include criteria of selection in state support, private patronage, and commercial promotion of the arts, in terms of multiculturalism, anti-racism, equal opportunities, and positive discrimination.
Especially pertinent, at the level of EU as well as national policy, is the issue of public support for lesser-used languages and translation to/from them, in the fields of education, publishing and media production. This raises questions about the current privileging of autochthonous European languages over allogenic languages (those used by researchers on this project: Bengali, Hindi, and Turkish; and others including Arabic, Chinese, Russian, etc., etc.). Many allogenic languages are far more widely used in EU territory than the accredited lesser-used languages, which benefit from a wide range of subsidies. Though issues of cultural rights are central here, material considerations are also involved: allogenic languages are far more significant for Europes external international relations, in many cases.
The commercialisation of culture raises further issues. Ethnicity is increasingly commodified and marketed as exoticism. Cultural difference is promoted as a sales strategy. A cult of hybridity, or diaspora chic, carries dangers of eliding real differences between particular experiences and expressions of cross-border displacement or postmigrant negotiations of identity, as well as too hastily consigning nationality, nationalism and patriotism to an imagined past. The growing mainstream popularity of transnational and ethnic texts and even genres (Indian fiction; testimonies of Islamic women; tales from the urban ethnic ghetto; etc.) prompts questions about the impact of transnational culture industry practices on cultural producers operating in transnational communities. Some axial writers may be in a good position to exploit culture industry networks in the service of their own agendas. Others will have less happy experiences of the routinised expectations and categorisations enshrined in industry practices - in selection, editing, packaging, marketing and promotion. Many are involved in efforts to create (or extend) autonomous cultural networks, in order to maintain aesthetic and cultural political independence. But what degrees and kinds of independence are achievable in the cultural marketplace? Is there a role for affirmative cultural policy towards diasporas here?
The project is therefore concerned with: 1) the categorisations inherent in cultural policy-making and culture industry practices, 2) their impact on the production, distribution, reception and uses of axial writing, and 3) new cultural strategies which are emerging beyond the confines of dominant market orientations, current state or supranational policies, and established forms of diaspora community politics.
The project is distinctively comparative and multi-disciplinary. Six researchers will work in cross-disciplinary teams. Pair work will be used as a research strategy, Cheesman and Göktürk working on Germany and Turkey, Gillespie and Singh on Britain and India; Goodby and McLeod are specialists in Irish and Caribbean writing, respectively. Special expertise in certain media, artforms and genres is shared by other pairs of researchers, who will collaborate on comparative studies: cinema and broadcasting (Gillespie and Göktürk); post-colonial fiction (McLeod and Singh); poetry (Cheesman and Goodby). The team will meet frequently to ensure methodological consistency, to refine the common theoretical framework, and to collaborate on the evaluation and comparison of findings.
In Phase One of the research, surveys of relevant axial activity will be undertaken, based on published materials and interviews with writers, agents, publishers, booksellers, media professionals, and officials of national and local cultural institutions. The key field sites are London and Berlin, although secondary centres (e.g. Leeds, Birmingham, Hamburg, Frankfurt) will also be visited. The aim of these surveys is to map the scope of axial cultural traffic, set it in its recent historical context, and identify suitable subjects for case studies.
In Phase Two the researchers will undertake selected case studies in London, Berlin, Istanbul, Delhi and other relevant cities on: 1) currently significant axial writers and their work in a variety of genres and media, including its marketing, distribution, and reception; 2) collaborative cultural political projects with transnational dimensions, involving axial writers, including: publishing initiatives (presses, journals, Internet sites) and filmmaking projects; tours, festivals, prizes, exhibitions, and other promotional initiatives, including broadcast media projects; educational initiatives; 3) the interface of transnational cultural production with public policy on local (city), national and supranational levels.
Select examples of prominent writers and filmmakers who meet the criteria of axiality: Caryl Philips (who has agreed to act as consultant to the project, facilitating access to others); Kwame Dawes; Ian Duhig; Firdaus Kanga; Hanif Kureishi; Arundhati Roy; Salman Rushdie; Meera Syal; and in Germany, Tefvik Ba_er; Aras Ören; Emine Sevgi Özdamar; Zafer Senocak; Feridun Zaimoglu. Contacts are established with most of these, with other less prominent axial writers, and with stationary writers whose work travels widely (including Günter Grass and Orhan Pamuk); as well as with key persons in diverse arts administration, funding and policy agencies, and media professionals with interests in this field.
Each case study will involve interviews with cultural producers, and key persons involved in the production, distribution, public reception and pedagogical uses of axial writing, or involved in the planning and managing of transnational cultural projects; also with officials involved in cultural policy at various levels concerning literature, translation, and film and media.
Internet and local fieldwork will be used to solicit qualitative information from readers/audiences of axial work, in particular diaspora and other reading groups. We will seek to utilise research on public demand and responses, such as is carried out on behalf of library services in multi-ethnic and multi-lingual cities, and on behalf of publishers and media institutions with multiculturalist commitments and/or transnational distribution networks.
Case studies will be selected to be contemporary, complementary, and sociologically comparable. Sets of parallel studies on two, three or four axes will incorporate analyses of institutions and genres which are salient across the field of transnational cultural production and consumption. These range from public broadcasters with a multicultural remit involved in transnational filmmaking (Channel 4 and ZDF), to offices of local arts and cultural administration in multi-ethnic districts of Berlin (Kreuzberg) and Hamburg (Altona) and London (Haringey and the East End); and from prize-winning, best-selling novels and autobiographies, to the work of small ethnic presses and diaspora Internet sites. Thus we will illuminate the workings of a wide range of kinds of networks, and the significance of diverse kinds of genres (high-brow/middle-brow, mainstream/niche, print/cross-media), in both metropolitan and regional languages. (Beside English and German texts, Hindi, Bengali and Turkish texts will be examined.)
Critical text and discourse analysis informed by post-colonial and feminist theory will be employed in the study of diaspora self-representations, biographies, family sagas and fictional narratives of transnational travel. Other genres to be examined comparatively include ethnic comedy and satire (print, tv, radio and stage), poetry, song-texts and docu-fiction. Critical textual analysis will always be related to the study of the social infrastructures which bring texts to particular audiences.
Scholars with expertise pertaining also to other axes of cultural traffic will be invited to contribute to several planned seminars and conferences (in Swansea, Southampton, London and Berlin), extending the comparative breadth of the research.
Phase Three will involve collaborative analysis and writing up.
Academic and policy implications
We hope that the results of our research will feed into collaborative projects involving axial writers and cultural policy makers, and open up new thinking for those engaged in transnational cultural strategies. Our results will be valuable to users including those working in the culture and media industries, and in national and supranational (EU) cultural policy, by enabling them to compare recent developments in a range of geographical, media and generic sectors.
Following conversations with managers of cultural institutions in London and Berlin, we are developing proposals for transnational cultural collaboration and dissemination, including a festival on Axial Writing and Global Cities: Tropical London - Littoral Berlin - Temperate Istanbul - Polar Calcutta. This would aim to bring a new approach to transnational literatures and cinemas by focusing on patterns of metropolitan experience and cross-border traffic, rather than reinforcing existing tendencies to marginalise putative communities on grounds of national or ethnic origin.
On the academic level, the research project will result in a jointly authored book, articles, and a volume of conference proceedings. These will seek to address both Social Science and Humanities constituencies, encouraging the rapprochement of diverse disciplines under a comparative approach to contemporary global cultural change.