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Imagining the Transcultural

Trafficking in Dangerous Goods

English version
Brian Castro
p. 13-14

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1The world did not change on September 11th 2001.

2What the Western world appeared to do was to simplify discussion to the point where ideas retreated behind more familiar geo-political barricades. A full retreat. What the Western world did was to disdain the foreign, in other words, that very ingredient that possessed an irritant to thought, accelerating time into new particles, which can then be viewed differently ... in other words ... to have an experience. The French word expérience, I think, means both “experience” and “experiment”, and it captures the rhetorical imperative of vanguard thinking across barricades.

3As a novelist, I have never considered writing historical novels, at least, not those which are constrained by their time. I have never considered a retreat to a so-called “correct” or “universal” representation, but have always had an allegorical projection in mind, to push formal structures into new relevancies. But any newness demands a program of reception which tackles the cultural and political divide. If anything, the ironies of history repeat themselves in the latter’s reception and representation. The elision of disciplines, for example, as a way of facilitating the doubling and tripling of thought – the way ideas are intrinsically linguistic – is now quite common in most intellectual discourses. Yet the “rhetoric of rhetoric” has not fully been examined, the way in which rhetoric contradicts reason in translation, or the more explicit way in which different experiences of language and life reform discursive methods. And it has to be experienced, which is one way of speaking about translation.

4As I’ve noted elsewhere, if the 9/11 Commission found that the FBI had failed principally through a lack of imagination by not detecting the plots to demolish the World Trade Center, I would suggest that this failure of imagination stemmed directly from the fact that its members did not read foreign novels with small print runs that challenged their way of thinking. They could not imagine themselves into inhabiting the Other through language. There is a direct link here between an instrumental mentality, a deficient vocabulary, and an inability to inhabit another self. The world’s only superpower, making judgments under these conditions, can be hazardous for the rest of us. Indeed, one of Walter Benjamin’s great insights was that the self-reflexive obscurity of the aesthetic can help us address ethical as well as political concerns.

5It is not only translation which brings with it a betrayal commonly experienced by any writer, but there is greater treason in nationalism, which discourages any idea of risk-taking. We have to ask, behind whose barricades are we retreating? Innovation bases itself on a knowledge and an absorption of what other people in the world are doing. In music or in the visual arts we automatically engage this larger register. Because literature is tied to language, nations tend to be more possessive of it, and this possession culminates in an innately conservative political and moral agenda. Transnationalism as a field of study can raise the stakes in the arena of reception. If the historian, for instance, is fatally monological, doomed to outcomes, then can studies in diasporic cultures, hybrid existences and transnational perceptions refocus attention from a systemic malaise to a reality that exists? The recent London bombings, for example, indicate a blind spot, where the problems of generations bred from disaffection have obviously not been given any prominence.

6The possibilities of border-crossing had been expanding, but the barriers have gone up to the extent that whole new filters to cultural transmission are being introduced and we’re now in an environment where the key signifiers of particular cultural forms are being radically re-written. Everything and everyone is now seen through the lens of security. In other words, I, as a hybrid writer in more senses than one ... I, as one whose forebears would have been depicted as racially other, subaltern, but not dangerous, is now being asked to consider the role of thought as risk, when once it was play. Cultural transmission has become synonymous with trafficking in dangerous goods, be it ideas, texts or people.

7The present moment is probably more critical than at any other time in the recent past for analyzing and theorizing the meanings of cultural exchange. Yet the first point of any exchange is surely a linguistic one. It is why a tri-lingual journal such as this reaches beyond the idea, to the experience itself. In this mis-named “globalized” world, where English is the dollar of discourse, it is a huge irony that English readers only ever get a fraction of what is available. There are whole worlds out there beyond their reckoning, in the past and present, where exceptional works and ideas have emerged and are continually emerging without any notice in English, where rich and subtle discourses are taking place in many other languages, where there are writers who are more driven, more iconoclastic and who have a greater imaginative and experiential reach ... writers whom English readers will never discover, in a world obsessed with one language. We need to hesitate before expression. Learn how to exchange. For whiteness has set the terms for humanity: History, in its terms, has always been the necessity of others.

8This fumbling, therefore, with words, this balbutiement of the border-crosser, is something everyone should experience; a Diaspora of thought, a scattering of oneself; dispersing ideas across borders as spores and as hopeful chance; disseminating what is rich with possibilities; seeds ... before the authority of the border steals our truths, turning us into stereotypes out of necessity and fear. It seems that it is a far greater (t)error to be stereotyped as “authentic”. Thus, the story of the border-crossing has changed. It has never been more timely, nor more necessary, to be plural, to re-connect the vanguard with the social.

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Référence papier

Brian Castro, « Trafficking in Dangerous Goods »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化, 1 | 2006, 13-14.

Référence électronique

Brian Castro, « Trafficking in Dangerous Goods »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化 [En ligne], 1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 13 septembre 2009, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Brian Castro

Brian Castro was born in Hong Kong of Portuguese, Chinese and English parentage and has lived in Australia since 1961. He is the author of eight novels, including the award-winning Shanghai Dancing. He has also published a volume of essays. His latest novel is The Garden Book. His novel After China is published in France as L’architecte chinois by Editions de l’Aube.

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