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Imagining the Transcultural

The Agony of the Translated Subject

English version
Lawrence Phillips
p. 24-26

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1Preparing to write this response to the first edition of Transtext(e)s Transcultures little over a month after the London bombings, I am unable to dismiss from my mind how the political debate in Britain has quickly turned to the formerly unquestioned principle of multiculturalism in the United Kingdom. The debate has not always been measured and in all too many cases, the xenophobia and suppressed racism that underlies many sectors of British society has re-emerged, permeating the void opened by the political and social crisis in the wake of the atrocities. What measured reaction there has been has often from Britain’s ethnic minorities, particularly British Muslims of varying origins, despite a wave of racist attacks and abuse in the wake of the bombings. Yet the rhetoric from politicians and the press does not match the mood of the majority of the population. Indeed, a survey conducted for the BBC by MORI only a month after the 7th July bombings demonstrated that nationally, 62% of the population felt that the multicultural identity of the UK enhanced British society, which rose to a startling 87% among British Muslims.1 Positively this survey suggests that multiculturalism is an entrenched fact of British life, even when conducted in conditions unpropitious to a liberal response. Yet what does multicultural mean in contemporary society? Some 58% of the respondents to the same BBC/MORI survey indicated that people who came to live in Britain should adopt the values and traditions of British society.

2Clearly, at least for a significant number of the respondents, “multicultural” has become confused with “multiethnic”. Culture, in a manner any Victorian essentialist would recognise, has collapsed into race. Such contradictions radically undermine the political ideal of many cultures and traditions living in peaceful coexistence owing allegiance to the same national and political institutions. At times of crisis, the underlying strains are ever likely to emerge, even in a country with a ready-made trans-national, if not trans-cultural, “national” identity available in Britishness. This very issue goes to the heart of this new journal’s focus on diaspora, transnational identities, hybridity, and cultural translation. The identification of these specific phenomena rather than collecting them under some broader category is, I feel, of critical significance and is related to more practical issues of national and international cultural translation and understanding that the BBC/MORI survey raises over ‘multiculturalism’ and ethnicity where academics should be providing a lead. It also points to increasing challenges faced by more totalising terminology such as post-colonialism. This is not to dismiss any of the important work associated with that banner in the least, but I do wish to point to the problems with the two principal historio-critical narratives the term establishes.

3The first narrative maps out the first flush of optimism, both political and cultural, in response to independence from the vast nineteenth-century empires that largely collapsed after the Second World War. Optimism not misplaced at the time, but surely brought increasingly into question by the events of recent years. The political, economic, and social reality is that those empires were only in retreat on one front, leaving behind a world system predetermined to favour the former imperialists. The “post” in post-colonialism has in practice proved to be contingent at best, and at worst entirely idealistic. Indeed, the turn of the twentieth century has seen the re-emergence of direct imperial action in Iraq, Afghanistan and dreadful ethnic repression in the Sudan, Indonesia and elsewhere, and a new revisionist history of colonialism promoted by publications like Nail Ferguson’s popular history Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), which spawned a successful TV series in the UK. Even more recently, calls by right-wing politicians in the UK for positive teaching of Britain’s imperial history in schools has been on the political agenda. On other fronts, objections to Turkish entry to the European Union seem increasing racially based, while many of the disparate groups that protest against the social, economic, and cultural affects of globalism seem to blissfully unaware that they are, in fact, continuing a long (and arguably less historically conscious) struggle against colonialism.

4The second narrative establishes a political idealism that coalesces around and celebrates ideas like the “in-between”, “hybridity”, and, indeed, “multiculturalism”. These concepts have been taken to be indicative of creative cultural syntheses. What such optimism lacks is an acknowledgment of the pain, resistance, confusion and disillusionment that such experiences can create in practice. The process of cultural syntheses is a struggle at best that can lead to a dubious accommodation with the local hegemonic culture. What is the lived experience of “hybridity” or being culturally, socially and politically located “in-between”? Stuart Hall, writing just a decade ago in 1995, is not untypical of the political and social idealism associated with this narrative:

  • 2  Stuart Hall, “New Cultures for Old” in D. Massey and P. Jess (eds.), A Place in the World: Places, (...)

“They are people belong to more than one world, speak more than one language (literally and metaphorically); inhabit more than one identity, have more than one home; who have learned to negotiate and translate between cultures and who, because of this are irrevocably the product of several interlocking histories and cultures have learned to live with, and indeed to speak from difference.”2

5The British Muslim bombers of 7th July are just such translated individuals but, one presumes, felt strongly enough about the plight of their co-religionists around the globe to wish to kill themselves and others in protest. That doesn’t legitimise their act, and one might, as the British Prime Minister has, attempt to dismiss them as the misguided acts of a group of young men seduced by a pernicious ideology peddled by fanatics. Yet according to the immigrant parents of the alleged bombers, rather than dangerous deviants several of them were striking only by their apparent accommodation with life in Britain. On reflection though, and subject to any other explanation as to the motivations of these otherwise well-adjusted individuals, some pause for thought must ensue that reflects not only on act and reaction, commentary and theory, but also on the lived experience of cultural translation, hybridity, and the “in-between” which clearly left a cultural void for these young men. Clearly the narratives available under “post-colonialism”, of independence, cultural reclamation, and the “joy” of the hybridity, or even multiculturalism are not adequately engaged with the experiences of these second generation British Muslims.

6A new positive and intellectually engaged discourse is desperately needed to counter the increasingly reactionary politics of our times. To continue to subsume hybrid, transnational, and transcultural identities under a rubric that fails to offer an insight into the lived experiences of those for whom daily life is a constant negotiation and re-negotiation would point to the risk of serious academic neglect. The specific issues of formation, struggle, politics, representation, and expression of working accommodations between cultures needs to be urgently reappraised. Such a project must be multilingual, multicultural, transnational, and interdisciplinary. I am encouraged by the timely publication of Transtext(e)s Transcultures and feel confident that the forum it provides will foster such exchanges. Such exchanges are ever urgently needed in an era of increasing uncertainty, violence, misunderstanding, and ill-informed opinion in which culture can be confused with racial difference in an apparently liberal response to a terrible atrocity without any sense of the social and political regression that this in fact represents.

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2  Stuart Hall, “New Cultures for Old” in D. Massey and P. Jess (eds.), A Place in the World: Places, Culture and Globalisation, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 47

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Référence papier

Lawrence Phillips, « The Agony of the Translated Subject »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化, 1 | 2006, 24-26.

Référence électronique

Lawrence Phillips, « The Agony of the Translated Subject »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化 [En ligne], 1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 13 septembre 2009, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL :

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Lawrence Phillips

Lawrence Phillips is Reader in English and Divisional Leader for Media, English and Culture at the University of Northampton. He is the editor of the peer-reviewed academic e-journal Literary London: Interdisciplinary studies in the representation of London (, academic director of the annual international conference of the same name, and secretary of the UK Network for Modern Fiction Studies. His most recent publication is an edited collection entitled A Mighty Mass of Brick and Smoke: Victorian and Edwardian Representations of London (Rodopi: 2007). He is also the author of London Narratives: Post-war Fiction and the City (Continuum: 2006), and the editor of a further collection entitled The Swarming Streets: Twentieth-Century Literary Representations of London (Rodopi, 2004).

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