Intercultural studies 

ANG 160 Fall 2005


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The transcultural theory of Mikhail Epstein

( by Rachel Benjamin)

The Transcultural Theory of Mikhail Epstein

Mikhail Epstein’s theory of transculture provides an exciting model for the future shape of intercultural relations. While recognizing multiculturalism as a definite advance over the domination of a single monolithic culture, Epstein believes that the multicultural model is inherently flawed. He claims that multiculturalism “recognizes the pure, unqualified multiplicity of cultures without positing any ways for them to interact meaningfully and constructively” (Transcultural Experiments 97). In viewing all cultures as complete, self-contained systems, multiculturalism provides no space for cross-cultural interaction. Such a model limits human freedom by enclosing individuals within the confines of their cultures. Epstein cites the case of Merab Mamardashvili, a philosopher of Georgian origin who saw himself as part of the Russian and European philosophical traditions and was frustrated by attempts to classify him based upon his ethnic background. According to Mamardashvili, “the defense of autonomous customs sometimes proves to be a denial of the right to freedom and to another world. It seems as if a decision were made for them: you live in such an original way, that it is quite cultural to live as you do, so go on and live this way. But did anyone ask me personally? . . . Perhaps I am suffocating within the fully autonomous customs of my complex and developed culture?” (cited in Transcultural Experiments 82). Thus, multiculturalism neither provides an adequate model for interaction between cultures nor takes into account the desire of the individual to reach beyond the limits of his or her own culture. Though multiculturalism is a step in the right direction, it should not be seen as an end unto itself. As a successor for the multicultural model, Epstein proposes his own model, which he names “transculture.”

Transculture can be defined as “culture’s potential for self-awareness and self-transformation” (Transcultural Experiments 37). Just as culture liberates humans from the oppression of the raw instincts of nature, so transculture liberates humans from the oppression of the symbols of culture. As Epstein writes, “the limits of any culture are too narrow for the full range of human potentials” (Transcultural Experiments 82). However, by becoming aware of these limits, a member of a culture or even the culture as a whole can transcend them. This space beyond the limits of culture is transculture. The possibility, and indeed the urgency, of meaningful cross-cultural dialogue stems precisely from the acknowledgment of these limitations. In Epstein’s words, “the transcultural approach asserts the fundamental insufficiency and incompleteness of any culture and thus its need for radical openness to and dialogue with others” (“On Transculture”). Epstein compares such cross-cultural dialogue to the scientific phenomenon of constructive interference, which occurs when two overlapping waves combine to form a new wave whose amplitude is equal to the sum of the amplitudes of the two initial waves (Transcultural Experiments 101). The constructive interaction between two cultures can likewise produce results greater than what either culture could have produced while operating as an isolated unit. Transculture is “the sum total of constructive interferences among different cultures and cultural domains” (Transcultural Experiments 101). Transculture thus does not occupy a clearly delineated, mapped out territory, rather it is a land of potentials as multiple and diverse as humanity itself. The importance of Mikhail Epstein’s transcultural theory lies in, as Epstein himself puts it, its provision of “strategies for the invention of positive alternatives to the legacies of cultural antagonism and domination” (Transcultural Experiments 3).

Works Cited

Epstein, Mikhail N. “On Transculture.” The Academic Exchange 7. 5 (2005). Accessed 2 Nov. 2005 < .html>.

Epstein, Mikhail N. and Ellen E. Berry. Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.