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Transforming the World View of Minority CulturesShu-mei Shih (L) and Françoise Lionnet, co-directors of the Cultures in Transnational Perspective Mellon Postdoctoral Program. (Photo by Reed Hutchinson.)

Transforming the World View of Minority Cultures

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A program funded by the Mellon Foundation is creating an enlightened new perspective on the influence of minority cultures around the world.

This article was first published in the UCLA College Report.

By Dan Gordon

With the growing intensity of global migration, does it make sense in the 21st century to study cultures within the confines of national boundaries?

Must the impact and role of minority cultures be analyzed only as part of national models, and always compared to the country's dominant culture?

The emerging field of Transnational Studies, as represented by a multi-campus research group based in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and a newly funded postdoctoral fellowship program, answers no to both questions.

The “Cultures in Transnational Perspective Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship Program” in the College's Division of Humanities will bring a dozen postdoctoral fellows to UCLA over the next four years, beginning next fall. The program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, aims to increase the understanding of minority cultures, shifting from a national focus to a much broader level.

The postdoctoral scholars will stay for two years, each exploring minority cultures within specific countries, but working to shift the view of those cultures into major components of world culture and history. During their two-year appointments, Mellon Fellows will study history and culture generated by immigrant and minority writers, artists, filmmakers, playwrights and musicians in metropolitan centers across the world—thereby reshaping the canons of literature, art and music in their respective countries.

The program is co-directed by Françoise Lionnet, director of the Global Fellows Program, professor and former chair of the Department of French and Francophone Studies and a professor of comparative literature; and Shu-mei Shih, associate professor of Asian languages and cultures, comparative literature, and Asian American studies. [Lionnet is interim associate dean of the UCLA International Institute.]

Breaking Down the Boundaries throughout Cultural Studies

The program expands on the work of the Transnational and Transcolonial Studies Multicampus Research Group established in 2000, also under the leadership of Lionnet and Shih. That group, an interdisciplinary community of scholars in the humanities and social sciences from throughout the UC system, fosters collaborations on the study of minority cultures across national boundaries, with attention to colonial and post-colonial processes.

“Our goal has been to break down the boundaries between ethnic studies, area studies, and national, language, and literature departments in the humanities through a focus on minority cultures and their contributions to both the literary and social worlds,” said Shih.

“In the United States,” Shih said, “ethnic studies programs focusing on Asian Americans and African Americans, for example, tend not to look at these cultures in comparison with minorities in Europe, Africa or Asia.”

In an era when migration has created a growing global dispersion of cultures as well as new hybrid cultural identities, the emerging transnational approach enables scholars to study these cultures from a perspective that reflects the modern world, suggested Shih, who grew up as a Taiwanese national living in South Korea, raised by parents from China.

“We hear a lot about the so-called majority cultures becoming more and more transnational because of all the mixing going on as a result of globalization and transnational corporations,” Shih said. “But the same thing is happening with minority peoples -- it just hasn't been studied.”

Encouraging Comparative Study across National Boundaries

“The study of minority cultures has tended to follow a pattern that is not only national, but also vertical,” said Lionnet, “focusing both on the minority's modes of resistance or accommodation to the dominant culture in the same country and on the creative contributions of these minorities in relation to a common national identity.

“But the transnationalization of minority cultures has been an integral part of world culture for centuries,” said Lionnet, “and comparing patterns of cultural expressiveness among different minority cultures and across national boundaries can lead to new insights.” It can show how minority cultures from different historical and contemporary colonial contexts share certain traits. “One such productive mode of comparison has been between Francophone Caribbean or Indian Ocean literatures and African-American literary culture,” added Lionnet, who is a native of Mauritius and whose comparative work is known for its focus on these areas of the globe.

The Mellon program extends the work of the Multicampus Research Group, bringing in postdoctoral scholars from all over the country, drawing from diverse fields and disciplines. Lionnet and Shih expect that, through studies by these scholars and intellectual dialogue facilitated by monthly seminars, the theory of transnationalism will be tested through a series of comparative questions. Among them:

* Are there significant variations in the degrees of openness or resistance to foreign or minority influences within regionally-distinct parts of the world? Is Africa more open, say, to the influence of American music than is Japan? Or is America more open than Europe to Chinese influences in art and dance?

* Are musical or artistic forms more permeable to external influences than literary ones?

* What is lost in translation as cultures move from one venue to another?

* What, in a more profound sense, are the psychological losses experienced in the process of migration, exile and diasporic movement?

“The Mellon grant offers a unique opportunity for UCLA to welcome a new, talented cadre of scholars to explore a subject that has become increasingly central to the personal and academic lives of students and faculty at UCLA,” said Jonathan Post, the UCLA College's interim dean of humanities.

Post believes that one reason UCLA should be in the vanguard of this emerging field is because of its geographic location and diverse population. Indeed, transnationalism reflects what is already a characteristic of the student body at UCLA, whose own cultural mix mirrors the composition of Los Angeles -- perhaps the world's most ethnically-diverse city.

The postdoctoral fellows will enhance UCLA's existing strength in scholarship on minority cultures—scholarship that has already begun to realign across traditional boundaries, thanks to the Multi-campus Research Group.

“Given that California is a state with such tremendous cultural diversity and richness, it makes sense for us to emphasize those aspects of our own disciplines that are aligned with the different cultures that exist here. This means trying to move beyond the earlier perspectives which tended to put each discipline in its own corner and considered national cultures as bounded areas,” said Lionnet.

Lionnet offers the name of her own department as an example. In the spring of 2000, a year after arriving at UCLA to become department chair, Lionnet proposed changing the name of “The Department of French” to “The Department of French and Francophone Studies,” in recognition of courses already being offered in the literature of sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Quebec. The change became effective the following fall.

“There are 50-some countries in the world where French is spoken, and Francophone literature can include the literary production of writers from West Africa, from the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadaloupe, or from Algeria and Morocco,” Lionnet said. “We have to take into account the fact that the French language is transnational, and look at those cultures transnationally as well. By crossing disciplinary boundaries and national borders we can come up with new and interesting ways of thinking about citizenship, migration, identity and subjectivity.” Similarly, Shih has recently coined the category of the “Sinophone” to include the study of communities that speak different Chinese languages outside China as a way of critically engaging with China-centrism.

The incoming postdoctoral Mellon Fellows will provide new stimulus for faculty as well as graduate students, who are increasingly encouraged to conduct research in such cutting-edge humanities fields, Lionnet noted. Though each will be based in a different department, the Mellon Fellows will conduct interdisciplinary work. Monthly seminars will provide a focal point for examining the ways in which minority cultures are treated across disciplinary boundaries such as literature, history, art history, musicology, theater, film and art.

Solidifying a New Intellectual Agenda

In November 1998, while attending a conference being held in the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, Lionnet and Shih engaged in an informal discussion on the state of ethnic studies in the United States and Europe. Their conversation continued late into the evening, during which they discovered their mutual dissatisfaction with the disciplinary boundaries that ensured their paths would never cross in their home institutions.

In the introduction to the book Minor Transnationalism (Duke University Press, 2005), which Lionnet and Shih co-edited, they recall that conversation:

One a Mauritian of French descent working in Francophone, African, and African American studies, and the other a Korean-born ethnic Chinese working in Chinese area studies and Asian American studies, we were both in some sense “minoritized” in the major disciplines of French and Chinese. We were both too “ethnic studies” for the mainstream of our fields, but we would not normally have shared our common concerns and our common predicament. Had we not met through an arbitrary gathering in a major metropolis, the seat of power, our minor orientations would have remained invisible to each other. We realized, in retrospect, that our battles are always framed vertically, and we forget to look sideways to lateral networks that are not readily apparent.

The conversation was empowering to both scholars. Each of them realized that they weren't alone in their struggle to work at the intersection of ethnic and area studies. The meeting blossomed into an intellectual agenda, leading to the Multicampus Research Group, the book and the new Mellon Postdoctoral Fellows program.

“We're looking forward to having young scholars here who will expand our thinking on these issues,” said Shih. “And what's great is that the program gives national legitimacy to this type of interdisciplinary, inter-area transnational work, so that these younger scholars won't face the same resistance that Françoise and I experienced.”