Manifesto for a transcultural humanism

by Arianna Dagnino, PhD

1. A new prism

The way we pursue knowledge must be looked at through a different prism – the transcultural prism. Let us look at academic disciplines as we look at cultures when we look at them in a transcultural way.

2. The transcultural

The transcultural (Berry and Epstein 1999; Epstein 2012, 2009; Juneja 2012; Kravagna 2013; Welsch 2009, 2002, 1995) is a system of thought and a research method that assumes that cultures – as well as individuals – are open and mutually transforming organisms rather than monolithic, self-sufficient entities. According to this approach, cultures are conceived in constant relation to each other, fluctuating in an ongoing flux of confluences. The transcultural is not a normative system; it mostly acts at the level of the individual, though it can foster communities of thought among those who share its fundamental assumptions.

3. The confluential nature of knowledge

Taken all together, cultures are what make us humans. Taken all together, disciplines are what make us humans “knowledgeable” – that is, reflexive and self-reflexive beings. Cultures grow and develop through reciprocal osmosis, contamination, and amalgamation. The same can be thought and said of disciplines.

If we interrupt the conversation between cultures and their mutual permeation, or deny the importance, role, and value of certain cultures, we end up stifling our humanity. In a similar guise, if we interrupt the conversation and the confluential processes between disciplines, or deny the importance, role, and value of certain disciplines, we end up stifling knowledge.

4. Rejecting mutual exclusiveness

A transcultural approach tends to overcome, or at least calls into question, the partition of humanity into separate, mutually exclusive cultures. In the same way, it helps to overcome, or at least calls into question, a compartmentalization of knowledge into self-sufficient disciplines; most of all, it rejects the implicit binary framing of humanities and hard sciences as mutually exclusive entities.

Conceptualizing knowledge through a transcultural lens may also facilitate a transformative development in our contemporary educational model.

5. A new humanism

By rejecting the compartmentalization of knowledge into self-sufficient and mutually exclusive disciplines, the transcultural perspective paves the way towards a new humanism. As humanity develops ever more complex technological and social configurations – changing the definition of itself, its significance and its role on this earth – it becomes apparent that partitions and dichotomies in the realm of knowledge are neither justifiable nor desirable. A renewed humanist outlook can indeed prove essential to a deeper understanding of how our evolutionary path may develop in the future.

The techno-scientific advancement that has become an integral part of our existence provides us with unprecedented insights into the world of nature. Moreover, it increasingly allows us to generate – by means of complex machines and virtual interfaces – a new augmented reality. Indeed, in a more or less pronounced way, we have already started living in a “second reality” entirely built by our techno-digital endeavors.

As the discoverer of the existing reality as well as the maker of yet-to- be- created realities, the “human” is at the centre of this process of new understanding and creation by being both the “deus/dea ex machina” of our evolution and a living being endowed with a peculiar ability to be reflective and self-reflective. The following question thus becomes compelling and unavoidable: is it really possible to imagine that the heuristic effort aimed at acquiring (new) knowledge – and the ensuing educational model – should not contemplate and encompass “us,” the humans?

Framing and/or thinking about the output of technological and scientific advancement – that is, newly acquired information and data – as stand alone, somewhat self-explanatory elements of “objective” knowledge is deceptive and misleading. Any kind of new knowledge is necessarily extracted either from within a “human context” or through activities that are, directly or indirectly, ultimately “human.” As such, every new piece of knowledge, no matter how it might be grounded in a so-called scientific process, has an essentially “humanist content.” As a result, a humanist perspective becomes paramount to correctly appreciate and evaluate the newly produced understandings and insights, whichever domain or discipline they are rooted in. We thus may come to the following conclusion: the more science and technology allow us to venture into the labyrinth of the unknown, the more we need humanism as an Ariadne’s thread that will keep us connected with our point of departure – that is, our nature of “human beings.”

6. Body and mind
A transcultural model also rejects the dichotomy between body and mind, social behaviour and scientific behaviour, cultural anthropology and biology, informal knowledge and formal knowledge. As Geoffrey Samuel (2006, p. 3) states in his book Mind, Body and Culture: Anthropology and the Biological Interface, “There will increasingly be a plurality of ways of knowing on a global scale, and none of these approaches to knowledge is going to have absolute authority or primary status.”

Through the transcultural prism we may fill the gap between the so called disciplines “of the mind” – often associated with excessive abstract reasoning and critical theorizing – and the practices (visual arts, performing arts, and crafts) that involve a skilled use of the hand/body system in the production of physical artifacts, movements, gestures, empathic engagements and communal experiences. Thinking and doing, interrogating the cosmos and creating beauty/meaning/shared realities are all practices tightly interrelated. A transcultural inclusive approach associated with a new humanist way of studying the world and practicing creativity re-evaluates the importance and fruitfulness of a balanced osmosis between scientific and liberal arts studies and activities for the wellbeing and freedom both of individuals and societies at large.

8. Transcultural confluences: beyond polarities

Let us therefore reclaim an inclusive vision of knowledge, which stresses the power of confluences, overlappings, and interactions among cultures and disciplines rather than the limiting effect of closure, segregation and binary thinking. It is right in the confluence, in that merging of waters, ebbs, and flows where it is no longer possible to trace back a single origin or envisage a single outlet, that we acquire and are granted the translational ability to move forward, think in new imaginative ways and adapt to the dynamic quality of our shared existence.

Arianna Dagnino was invited to present her “Manifesto for a Transcultural Humanism” during the Conference “Beyond Crisis: Visions for the New Humanities,”organized by the Centre for Humanities Innovation (CHI) and held at Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom, on 7 and 8 July, 2014.

About the Author

Arianna Dagnino conducts research on transcultural practices at The University of British Columbia. Her interests in scholarship include the arts and literatures of global mobility, cultural flows, translation, bilingual writing and neonomadic creative and intercultural patterns. In addition to numerous articles in English and Italian, Dagnino’s publications include the novel The Afrikaner (2019), inspired by her five years spent in South Africa, and several books on the impact of socio-techno globalization, including I nuovi nomadi /New Nomads(1996) and Jesus Christ Cyberstar (2008). She is also the author of the peer-reviewed book Transcultural writers and novels in the age of global mobility  (Purdue University Press, 2015).


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