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A Few Considerations on the Notion of Transculturation
Felipe Hernandez, lecturer in Architecture, School of Architecture, University of Liverpool

Since this issue is dedicated to the notion of transculturation, I considered it appropriate to provide a brief history of the term as well as to issue a few warnings. The history of the term is necessary in order to understand the context ―geographical and theoretical― in which transculturation emerged and has developed. The warnings, on the other hand, are necessary because the term has been used indiscriminately and excessively to the point that it has begum to lose its intrinsic political value. Transculturation is a useful term to describe situations of cultural interaction and the effect that such interaction has on all the cultural systems involved. However, the term demands a great degree of socio-political specificity if it is to maintain its critical efficacy.

Let me first elaborate on the notion of transculturation itself before exploring its applicability in architecture. The term transculturation was coined by the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in the book Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y del azúcar (translated into English as Cuban Counterpoint). Ortiz created the term in order to explore the cultural dynamics in operation between Cuban and other cultures. Later, theorists have used transculturation in order to study a wide range of artistic, cultural and social manifestations throughout Latin America and, more recently, transculturation has been used as a generic term in order to examine issues relating to the cultural economy between peripheries and centres in general; a development that shows some benefits but also presents multiple theoretical shortcomings.

The theoretical transcendence of the notion of transculturation lies on the fact that it challenges the assumption that cultures develop taxonomically and unidirectionally. Therefore, transculturation can be understood as a multi-directional and endless interactive process between various cultural systems, which opposes and defies unidirectional and hierarchical structures determined by the principle of origin that are associated with claims for cultural authority. That is why transculturation appears as the antithesis of ‘acculturation’, a term which semantically implies the loss of culture provoked by the superiority of one cultural system over another, hence the ultimate elimination of non-dominant cultures. By ‘transculturation’, then, Ortiz suggests that a process of mutual interaction exists between cultures, despite the unequal distribution of power characteristic of transcultural relations. This way, transculturation emerges as a useful theoretical tool with which to examine the complex dynamic implicit in the interaction between cultures and the continual redefinition of cultural contexts that it brings about.

Another aspect particularly important in the discussion about transculturation is the emphasis that Ortiz places on human beings both as the bearers of culture and as the victims of cultural exchange. That is why, in his own explanation of transculturation, Ortiz stresses the cultural diversity of the three main generic groups that clash during the colonization of Latin America: Indigenes, African and Spaniards. He highlights that each one of these broadly defined groups was in fact many: indigenes who belonged to different families, Africans of diverse origins, races and cultures (Senegal, Guinea, Congo and Angola, to mention a few), and Spaniards from different countries within the Iberian Peninsula and other places in Europe. The sustained interaction between all these individuals of diverse origin, Ortiz argues, was the most important factor in the formation of Cubanness; a culture that he describes as transitory, provisional and always changing. And it is precisely this human dimension that is missing in contemporary architectural history, not only in Latin American but in general, although each case needs to be studied according to its own specific conditions: cultural, social, political and hisotrical ―even Latin American could not be generalized.

In sum, the notion of transculturation emerges as a flexible method of analysis capable of dealing with the multiple and complex set of socio-cultural practices that take place simultaneously in Cuba, Latin America and the world. Transculturation is a term loaded with political content because it is concerned with the practices of the people, their histories and their experiences. It allows for the theorization of multiple socio-cultural groups whose practices are always connected beyond territorial boundaries but which, despite their interaction, maintain a certain independence. Precisely because of its socio-political content, transculturation offers numerous possibilities to overcome the theoretical reductionism found in other terms such as syncretism, fusion or, even, hybridity.

Given the socio-political content inherent in the term transculturation, it offers ample opportunity to produce new methods of architectural analysis in order to cover the entire spectrum of architectural practices that constantly re-shape cities around the world, while, at the same time, uncovering other dimensions of dominant ―either traditional or modernist― architectures that have never been studied before. It is clear that the notion of architectural transculturation itself, and alone, does not provide a solution for the dilemmas with which Latin American, as well as most world architectures are now faced ―it would be naïve to pretend that one term could, on its own, accurately describe, represent or resolve the complex questions that surround contemporary cultural relations. What is important about the use of the term transculturation within architectural debates is its enormous potential to connect such debate(s) with other aspects of our cultures that require attention if we are to respond architecturally to the realities and needs of the people in more accurate ways. Due to the great number of different issues with which transculturation is intrinsically connected, it appears a useful tool in order to dismantle the essentialist, genealogical and hierarchical structures with which architectural practices have been approached, both in Latin American and in the rest of the world. Yet, it is important to emphasize the importance of using the term with academic notion.

Notes

1. This paper is an extract from a keynote address presented at the Scope II conference held in Vienna on Septermber 28th-29th 2006. The original paper was entitled ‘Beyond Dichotomous Cities: Historicizing Transculturation and the Latin American City’. For further information see http://www.scope.at/

2. For further information on the term transculturation and its applicability in architecture see F. Hernández, M. Millington and I. Borden (eds). Transculturation: Cities, Spaces and Architectures in Latin America. Amsterdam – New York: Rodopi.


Felipehm@liverpool.ac.uk

27/09/2008
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