Revolutionary researchers: the transnational

The theme of this second reading group, led by Clare Siviter, was ‘France and the Transnational’, leaving the definition of ‘transnational’ intentionally broad to encourage the discussion of ideas and themes which might reach beyond the obvious issue of sovereign boundaries. The reading—extracts from David Bell’s Inventing Nationalism; John Isbell’s The Birth of European Romanticism; Rahul Markovits’ Civiliser l’Europe: Politiques du théâtre français au XVIIIe siècle; and the collaborative effort by Ann Thomson, Simon Burrows, Edmond Dziembowski, and Sophie Audidière, Cultural Transfers: France and Britain in the Long Eighteenth Century—was intended to draw out these sorts of interpretations.

We began our discussion by focussing on this very issue. Jonathan opened up by asking the group to consider how we might best define the communities under scrutiny: is the nation a useful framework for us to work within when we as researchers are predominantly concerned with shared ideas within a community of cultural elites working across national boundaries? In other words- is transnationalism an intrinsic aspect of ‘cultural transfer’ anyway? It was agreed that the process of cultural transfer within these communities is perhaps more interesting than the functionalities of national politics; but that the construct of the nation is an integral part of how we map this process.

This naturally provoked a discussion on the idea of ‘cultural transfer’ as a concept (dealt with in Cultural Transfers), which we concluded by agreeing that ‘cultural transfer’ between sovereign states is at least as interesting for the means by which cultural ‘objects’ are transferred as for the end result itself.

We also discussed the notion that sovereign states were keen to encourage culture transfer as a means of achieving a ‘cultural monopoly’, or acquiring ‘cultural capital’. One particular example that stood out in the discussion was Napoleon’s contest with Great Britain for Egyptian cultural artefacts at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Sarah suggested that we pursue this further- what function does ‘cultural capital’ play within a transnational framework? Notions of ‘heritage’ dominated the discussion- Oskar argued that we might perceive heritage as a foundation on which cultural acquisitions might be ‘spent’ to construct something entirely new.

Turning towards the cultural ‘objects’ themselves, it was pointed out by Fabio that the framework is as much an issue of romanticism as of transnationalism. Indeed, where we consider Staël’s De l’Allemagne (the focus of Isbell’s The Birth of European Romanticism), the two are perhaps even inseparable. The romanticists were keen on pushing back to the past, with German romantics in particular frequently recycling classicism through re-reading of ancient Greeks etc. Might we—as Clare suggested—perceive this as a form of ‘temporal transnationalism’, where cultural transfers crossed both national and temporal boundaries?

But what do we mean by romanticism? This proves to be a problematic term within disciplines, let alone across disciplinary lines. Can we really discuss romanticism within a methodological framework of ‘temporal transnationalism’? Sarah suggested a helpful metaphor- romanticism as an umbrella, where ideas ‘hang together’ wherever they are but which (as Michael posited) take on slightly different meanings depending on the location of their performance (thus back to the importance of national identity in the process of cultural transfer).

Some form of transnational mediation of meaning is possible, however, if we consider the cultural hegemony of what some scholars have termed l’Europe française during the eighteenth and the early decades of the nineteenth centuries. It is a problematic mediation, however, given there was also a very dynamic and reciprocal practice of import and export in France, particularly of Italian and German cultural objects. Therefore, from a cultural perspective, it is difficult to limit oneself to writing purely national histories, given that the practice of dialogue between them was so well entrenched.

Nevertheless—and in conclusion of our discussion—we agreed that alongside any meaningful discussion about issues pertaining to culture and transnationalism, we need to consider the importance of nationalism within the same context.

Jonathan Huff

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