Engler, Balz, and Lucia Michalcak (eds.). 2007. Cultures in Contact. SPELL 19.

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Table of Contents


Introduction                                                                                11


Arif Dirlik (University of Oregon)

In Search of Contact Zones: Nations, Civilizations, and the

Spaces of Culture                                                                        15


Roger D. Sell (Åbo Akademi University)

Literary Scholarship as Mediation: An Approach to Cultures

Past and Present                                                                                                  35


Robin Blyn (University of West Florida)

To Be or Not to Be a Humanist?: Anthropological Stage Fright

in the Age of Cultural Relativism                                                   59


Danièle Klapproth (Universities of Basel and Bern)

Narrating Across Cultural Boundaries – or “Where Were

Rocky’s Father’s Brothers?”                                                          77


Patrick H. Vincent (University of Neuchâtel)

The Professor and the Fox: Louis Agassiz, Henry David

Thoreau and “The Two Cultures”                                                95


Lukas Bleichenbacher (University of Zurich)

“This is meaningless – It’s in Russian”: Multilingual Characters

in Mainstream Movies                                                                  111


Michael C. Prusse (Zurich University of Teacher Education)

“East is East” or Transcultural Cosmopolitanism? Positions on

Cross-Cultural Encounters in Postcolonial Theory and in a

Series of “Passages to India                                                          129


Mara Cambiaghi (University of Constance)

Christine Brooke-Rose’s Routes of Belonging: Remake                     149


Note from the general editor, September 2009


Hartwig Isernhagen (University of Basel)

“Clash of Civilizations”, Or: A Plea for Satire                                 185


Notes on Contributors                                                                203


Index of Names                                                                                     207



In Search of Contact Zones:

Nations, Civilizations, and the Spaces of Culture


Arif Dirlik


This article argues against the identification of culture with units such as nations, civilizations and continents. It uses the examples of China, Asia and Islam to illustrate that all these supposed units of culture are marked by important internal differences that belie any claims to cultural homogeneity. Contact zones, it suggests, have historical and logical priority to such units, and should provide the point of departure for analysis of both commonality and difference. Rather than spreading out from some original core area, units such as nations and civilizations are the products of many local interactions, and are formed from the outside in as much as they are from the inside out.

Literary Scholarship as Mediation:

An Approach to Cultures Past and Present


Roger D. Sell


This paper suggests that one of the main roles of the literary scholar is as a mediator between different sociocultural positionalities, past and present. If literary scholars, together with scholars in other areas of the humanities, were to shoulder this task more boldly, and if its value were more broadly recognised within educational institutions at all levels, then conflicts between different groupings, both smaller and larger, might in the long run be easier to  resolve. For this to happen, however, scholars will need to ground themselves on something like a distinction between distorted and genuine communication, and on an account of literature in particular as one among other forms of genuine communication. Some such view will make the ethical, hermeneutic, and evaluative dimensions of literary-scholarly mediation especially easy to grasp. So equipped, scholars will be well placed to promote a sense of the literary community as indefinitely large and indefinitely heterogeneous. The point being that, when duly mediated, a literary text is neither universal in the way suggested by Johnson, Arnold and Leavis, nor a site of inevitable cultural conflict in the way suggested by much postmodern theory.

To Be or Not to Be a Humanist?: Anthropological Stage Fright in the Age of Cultural Relativism


Robin Blyn


The strange centrality of Hamlet in Laura Bohannan’s Shakespeare in the Bush (1966) and Clifford Geertz’s From the Native’s point of view (1974) effectively hides from interpretive anthropology in its formative years its own anxieties about the consequences of relativism for ethnographic authority. By returning to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Bohannan’s and Geertz’s essays return, ironically, to the universalist paradigm they each ostensibly reject. Hamlet, then, becomes the contested site wherein each essay discovers its inability to authorize the agenda it has set for itself. Specifically, the Shakespearean text becomes the site wherein cultural relativism as an epistemological stance fails to authorize the ethnographic subjects who have, however unwittingly, come to its defense. It is precisely because of the anxieties it provokes that interpretive anthropology’s paradigm of cultural relativism continues to haunt even our most contemporary theories of cross-cultural contact.

Narrating Across Cultural Boundaries – or

 “Where Were Rocky’s Father’s Brothers?”


Danièle Klapproth


This paper explores the question to what extent narrative communication is guided by culture-specific conventions of discursive organisation, and narrating across cultural boundaries may therefore pose problems for mutual understanding. The paper adopts a discourse-analytical, comparative approach and is based on the author’s linguistic-anthropological fieldwork in a Central Australian Aboriginal community. It is shown that – contrary to Anglo-Western story conventions – Australian Aboriginal narratives are not conceptualised as protagonist-centred problem-solving episodes, but rather use narrative schemata that are centred around character nexuses and focus on cause-and-effect chains. It is argued that the narrative schemata acquired through language socialisation serve as frameworks for interpretation and are intrinsically related to culture-specific ways of viewing and making sense of the world.

The Professor and the Fox:

Louis Agassiz, Henry David Thoreau and “The Two Cultures”


Patrick H. Vincent


. . . in him perhaps

Science had barred the gate that lets in dream,

And he would rather count the perch and bream.

                James Russell Lowell, Agassiz (1874)


This essay examines the relationship between Louis Agassiz and Henry David Thoreau as an example of “two cultures” in contact. It argues that Thoreau used various forms of parody to undermine the authority both of Agassiz’s discourse and his natural system. Thoreau distrusted the dominant creationist paradigm because of its emphasis on fixity and contiguity rather than on organic transformation. The fox which Thoreau sent to Agassiz thus serves in Walden and in Thoreau’s journals as a destabilizing figure to undermine the separation between poetry and science, writing and the world. This awareness of the vital, transformative forces in nature allowed Thoreau, unlike Agassiz, to immediately accept Darwinian evolution.

“This is meaningless – It’s in Russian”:

Multilingual Characters in Mainstream Movies


Lukas Bleichenbacher


Is Russian dialogue in Hollywood movies typically meaningless? Are German speaking characters necessarily evil, or French speakers refined? While previous commentators on multilingualism in mainstream cinema have focussed on the link between languages other than English and negative stereotyping, closer readings informed by pragmatic and sociolinguistic theories of language choice reveal more complex patterns. On the one hand, non-English dialogue can contribute to positive characterisation and realism in representation, as argued in the example of the action movie The Peacemaker. Conversely, the analysis of a scene from The Pianist shows how the replacement of all Polish dialogue with English carries questionable ideological undertones. However, an overview of some recent blockbusters shows a tendency towards less replacement and more presence of non-English dialogue. Ultimately, the key to a less biased representation of multilingual realities lies in their normalisation, rather than in the use of other languages merely for aesthetic or narrative purposes.

“East is East” or Transcultural Cosmopolitanism? Positions on Cross-Cultural Encounters in Postcolonial Theory and in a Series of

“Passages to India


Michael C. Prusse


Postcolonial critics Homi Bhabha and Aijaz Ahmad disagree on the effects of migration and the ensuing cross-cultural encounters. Bhabha stresses the empowerment resulting from switching between cultures, whereas Ahmad dismisses this phenomenon as postmodern alienation. These critical positions are reflected in a series of “Passages to India,” beginning with poems by Rudyard Kipling and Walt Whitman and continuing with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and its film adaptation by David Lean. While Forster regards the possibility of friendship across cultures with great scepticism, Lean adopts a revisionist stance. He alters Forster’s standpoint and makes friendship according to British (colonialist) terms feasible. Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “Interpreter of Maladies,” is influenced both by the novel and the film. Although her narrative ends as pessimistically as Forster’s and appears to confirm Ahmad’s misgivings, Lahiri’s own biography rather conforms to Bhabha’s optimistic vision of enrichment generated by transcultural cosmopolitanism.

Christine Brooke-Rose’s Routes

of Belonging: Remake


Mara Cambiaghi


In this age of globalisation, Christine Brooke-Rose may represent an interesting case of cultural diaspora internal to Europe, an experience she describes with considerable insight in her autobiographical novel Remake (1996). Prompted by her publisher, Brooke-Rose gathers fragments of an existence rooted in separate cultures, spanning crucial moments in European history. Her novel recaptures the feelings of her childhood in memory, mapping a sense of displacement and the ensuing wonder at the various experiences befalling the war-time child and adolescent and, later, her intellectual mediation between different cultural traditions. Aided by an in-depth knowledge of both narratology and Lacanian theories of displacement of the subject, the author turns her life experience into a highly experimental autobiographical narrative which I propose to illustrate. While her fiction successfully exploits her position as someone who is ambiguously positioned between cultures, it also exemplifies that sense of depaysement described by other intellectuals who have converted this very sense of being on the border between national cultures into a positive life-project.

“Clash of Civilizations,” Or:  A Plea for Satire

Hartwig Isernhagen


These are not good times for satire. However prominent terms such as difference and conflict may have been in theorizations of interculturality, as well as in the wide field of postcolonial criticism, they are regularly and programmatically subjected  to and contextualized within perspectives of pacification and mediation that are inimical to satire. This is a censoring move that is motivated by the historical experiences of the twentieth century, and thus entirely “comprehensible,” but that entails its own dangers. This essay briefly lists some of those dangers and argues that the reality of aggression in intercultural interaction cannot be dealt with through acts of denial, but only through modes and mechanisms of communication that will release and transform such aggression in ways ultimately not destructive of the social or civilized bond that should exist even between those separated by profound difference and grave conflicts. It recognizes satire as one such mode.

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