On 25 June 2018, this one-day interdisciplinary workshop, organised by Anne Fuchs (Humanities Institute Ireland, University College Dublin (UCD)), Godela Weiss-Sussex (Institute of Modern Languages Research) and Maria Roca Lizarazu (IMLR, SAS/University of Birmingham), brought together researchers from a whole range of disciplines from University College Dublin and the School of Advanced Study, University of London who share an interest in the city as transnational and translingual space. In addition to critically engaging with urgent research questions around the notions of transnationalism and translingualism, the organisers’ intention was to explore possible pathways for longer-term collaboration between the various institutions and researchers involved.

In their opening address, the organisers outlined the workshop’s main themes, i.e. transnationalism and translingualism. Anne Fuchs problematised the predominant focus on travel across space in transnational studies which has eclipsed the interest in time as a determining factor in transnational and transcultural networks of exchange. However, despite the ubiquity of digital devices and the “culture of speed” (Tomlinson 2007) in the information age, time is not experienced uniformly in a globalised world. What transnational studies needs, according to Fuchs, is temporal categories of analysis that are sensitive to the context-dependent, multi-layered and localised nature of the timescapes which individuals and societies of today inhabit. Godela Weiss-Sussex pointed out that translingualism (Kellman 2000) is a somewhat contested notion, often overlapping with other terms such as post-monolingualism (Yildiz 2012) or multilingualism (Adelson 2005). For the purpose of the workshop, Weiss-Sussex suggested a concentration on openness to language contact, the idea of creating and crafting language, and the superimposition of identities as crucial aspects of translingual processes. In this context, she also called for an investigation of the potential emancipatory force behind concepts and practices of translingualism, particularly their ability to express fluid forms of community.

The workshop contributions were organised in four interdisciplinary and cross-institutional panels, the first of which engaged with “Architecture and Urbanisation”. Kathleen James-Chakraborty (School of Art History and Cultural Policy, UCD) examined the transnational and transcultural travels of International Style architecture. While it is well known that this architectural style flourished in several European countries in the early 20th century and then made its way to the US through emigrés such as Walter Gropius or Mies van der Rohe, Chakraborty suggested to focus on the under-researched question of why patrons in non-European countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, India and South Africa, were so attracted to an approach that was quintessentially stripped of the past. She also examined the role of 1930s and 1940s women in popularising this architectural style outside of Europe, through magazine editions, journalistic work, business investments or patronage, in an attempt to counter dominant narratives about male star architects.

Michael Grass (School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Warwick) looked at urban planning projects in the post-war era in the Eastern and the Western bloc. He argued that accounts of post-war architecture are often shaped by a narrative of competition and systemic rivalry between these two blocs. Challenging this perspective, Grass presented a range of collaborative projects between, for example, Yona Friedman and Frei Otto or the cities of Coventry and Dresden, which employed transnationalism as a planning strategy, often with the intention of overcoming national differences and securing future peace. This for him raised the question to what extent and how architecture may challenge or affirm dominant political ideologies.

Hugh Campbell (School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, UCD) engaged with the question of how the medium of photography can capture rapid processes of change in the context of recent Chinese urbanisation. Analysing photojournalism and art photography by, for example, Edward Burtynsky, Sze-Tsung Leong and Yan Yongliang, he investigated how techniques and formal tropes from the Western context are used in the Chinese setting. He raised the question of whether certain aesthetic strategies can travel from one national and/or cultural context to another or whether a particular national condition should produce its own specific aesthetic response.

Douglas Smith (School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics, UCD) opened the second panel, on ‘Francophone Perspectives’, with a consideration of the French hexagon. He demonstrated how the hexagon, as an integral part of French national iconography, oscillates between a ‘closed’ and a more open, transnational model. While the first embodies an entrenched and monolithic nation-state, the second accommodates not only diverse regions, classes and communities, but also France’s (post-)colonial history and its integration into the wider fabric of Europe. Arguably, it is precisely this interpretative ambiguity that makes the hexagon into such a powerful, versatile and long-lasting symbol, whose hegemony is, however, always precarious, as Smith pointed out.

Anna-Louise Milne (University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP)) presented on the process and some of the results of fieldwork she has conducted in local libraries of the central Paris municipal library network. She examined in particular how recent asylum seekers and migrants are welcomed and accommodated within the spaces of the library, which often acts as a point of encounter and translingual contact. She also contested Bongartz and Storch’s (2016) notion that such processes of translanguaging are characterised by the absence of deep content. Milne illustrated her point by showcasing and examining a range of books which the refugee and migrant library users had produced. These demonstrated attentiveness and a sense of temporal depth on various levels, be it in the insertion of the self into the books, the care for the production of the books or the urge to transmit stories for the future.

Mary Gallagher (School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics, UDC) closed the panel with an investigation of recent Francophone migrant writers of Haitian and Tunisian origin. She analysed in particular how the cities of Port-au-Prince and Tunis were used in their literature to reflect on themes such as community, transculturality, life and death. Drawing on the work of Jean Luc-Nancy, she argued that, in their explorations of community, these writers distinguish between the sharing of the same living space (“être-en-commun”) and having something in common, such as a tradition or a heritage (“avoir en commun”). Gallagher raised the question whether the notion of “être-en-commun”/being-in-common is something that is site-specific and therefore irretrievably lost when migrants (forcibly) leave their respective home countries.

The third panel, entitled ‘Fluid Foundations’, engaged with fluidity both in the literal and the figurative sense. Finola O’Kane Crimmins (School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, UCD) sketched out the history of the US-American town of Darien, Georgia, which was originally laid out in the early eighteenth century by Scottish colonists before becoming home to the Butler Island Plantation. O’Kane Crimmins outlined how the originally Irish plantation owner Pierce Butler imported Dutch and Irish drainage technology during the 18th and 19th century to deal with the specific challenges that river towns by the sea, such as Darien, faced. The example of Darien illustrates that the atlantic plantation economy collapsed any easy division of urban and rural contexts or of native and introduced vocabularies, since the plantation, by design, was able to incorporate the local and the global, the rural and the urban.

Naomi Wells (IMLR, SAS) scrutinised everyday language use in the context of urban migration to challenge the predominant focus on oral practices in the fields of applied and sociolinguistics. Writing, in these settings, is often seen as form of codification, enforcing prescriptive language norms. However, Wells demonstrated how writing and speech are intermingled in everyday urban practice, while also highlighting writing as a fluid, quotidian, transcultural and translingual practice that is embedded within the visual fabric of the city. Her examples showed that writing can indeed be an intervention that helps individuals and collectives to claim a space in the city and/or citizenship.

Peter Jones (Institute of Historical Research, SAS) probed transnational influences on the development of London’s music halls in the 19th century. Focusing on a number of Victorian popular theatres in the South London district of Lambeth, his paper illustrated the tension between efforts to, one the one hand, claim the music hall as a quintessentially English space and symbol of national(-istic) pride, and, on the other hand, its irrefutable transnational connection to cultures of song and dance from Paris, Berlin and New York. The 19th century music hall, for Jones, demonstrates the fluidity of the boundaries between the national and the transnational, the centre and the periphery and the vernacular and high culture.

The final panel ‘Writing the City’ was dedicated to literary engagements with the city as a transnational, transcultural and translingual space. Catherine Barbour (IMLR, SAS) used the case study of Ioana Gruia’s novel El expediente Albertina (2016) to explore migrant identities in Spanish-Romanian urban writing. According to Barbour, the novel challenges monolithic notions of culture and identity through the three protagonists’ transnational movements and bi- or translingual practices. They all flee Ceaușescu’s Romania for cities in the West, such as Granada, New York and Paris, and their movement between various cities, cultures and languages instigates an exploration of multiple cosmopolitan attachments and quintessentially porous notions of community, identity and language.

Britta Jung (Humanities Institute Ireland, UCD) also probed the concept of porosity in her analysis of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba (2013). Drawing on the works of Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch and Siegfried Kracauer, Jung explained how these thinkers developed their notion of porosity as the transversal of borders and boundaries and a state of constant dissolution in dialogue with various Mediterranean cityscapes. She then showed how similar conceptions of porosity resurface in Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s grotesque novel La Superba. Pfeijffer presents contemporary Genoa as a migratory junction which defies the “stamp of the definite” (Benjamin) and brings together fluid movements and identities. Jung also suggested to approach porosity as a fundamental aesthetic strategy shaping Pfeijffer’s text.

Maria Roca Lizarazu (School of Modern Languages and Cultures, Warwick/IMRL, SAS) finished the panel with a consideration of Robert Menasse’s recent novel Die Hauptstadt (2017). Roca Lizarazu argued that Menasse’s text can be used to critically re-examine celebratory claims about the transnationalisation and universalisation of Holocaust memory. Menasse’s text juxtaposes various forms and modes of Holocaust memory in the global age, most of which fail to secure a meaningful transmission of these memories to future generations. Roca Lizarazu suggested that the only space in which a meaningful connection between the past, present and future might emerge is the mulitperspectival narrative of Die Hauptstadt and thus literature itself.

The day finished with a roundtable discussion aimed at identifying common threads between the papers presented at this highly interdisciplinary event. What emerged as major themes of the workshop were, one the one hand, the issues of temporality and spatiality and, on the other hand, the question of agency in transnational discourse. In terms of temporality, the papers presented called for an approach that challenges linear and uniform notions of time, thus going back to Anne Fuchs’ opening remarks. At the same time, the various contributions emphasised the space of the city – and space in general – as an equally multi-layered phenomenon, not least because of its translingual potential. Furthermore, the co-presence of various times and the notion of uneven temporal developments emerged as guiding concepts.

Many of the talks also touched upon questions of agency. Particularly in the discussions surrounding transnationalism/transculturalism, a tension emerged between the transnational flows of global capitalism and what could be termed transnationalisms from below, which depend on multiple (individual and collective, institutionalised and grass-roots, state and non-state) actors and often evolve in unpredictable ways. These two types of transnationalisation are not in strict opposition to one another but often intersect, which is why participants made the case for a more multi-layered understanding of the terms transnationalism and transculturalism, similar to Ann Rigney’s idea of “scales of memory” (Rigney/de Cesari, 2015).

Apart from identifying these common threads, the participants also discussed how best to further and continue the collaboration between the researchers and institutions. As a first step, the organisers are planning an international conference in the summer of 2019, which will offer a multi-perspectival and interdisciplinary exploration of the urban street as a quintessentially transcultural and translingual space.

Click here for the conference programme.

Click here for a recording of the conference proceedings.

Maria Roca Lizarazu
University of Warwick / IMLR