Literature for Intercultural Awareness: A “Key to Perception”?
Guest Post by Michael Steppat
It has been said that literary works can benefit and advance intercultural understanding. For instance, Mazi-Leskovar maintains that “literature should alert readers to all those who are in one way or another different from the readers themselves. Literature thus encourages inter- and intracultural awareness” (2010, p. 10); “multicultural literature remains one of the sources through which issues related to intercultural communicative competence can be successfully addressed” (2006, p. 278). Wasikiewicz-Firlej (2012) explains that “works of literature enable the reader to observe the world from multifarious perspectives and cherish the diversity of individual perception. The power of literature lies in its unique ability to deeply involve the reader both at a cognitive, as well as emotional level.” Taking Japanese writer Haruki Murakami as an example, Kuryleva and Boeva have found: “The overwhelming majority of the writer’s literary heroes, placed into alien cultural environments, become the participants of intercultural communication” (2010, p. 171). This is not only a feature of recent literature, however. In the very beginning of western literary culture, Homer’s Iliad culminates in a Book 24 which poignantly depicts the furtive (and rather desperate) visit of Trojan ruler Priam in the quarters of the Greek enemy, at risk of his life.
Of course it is more recent developments that are especially relevant for us today. We owe to Edward T. Hall an insight into sources of knowledge that bring to light the concealed snags of what we like to take for granted, what culture “hides” from its own members. In The Hidden Dimension, Hall illustrates this with the desirability of using literary artifacts as “a key to perception”: from fictional works of different cultural origins one may gain data on the experience and perception of spatial distance as “a significant cultural factor” (1966/1982, pp. 94ff.). Some time after this, communication scholar John C. Condon suggested: “The potential of literature and film for our understanding of intercultural relations is considerable, and can be explored both through the analysis of cultural patterns expressed in the works, and in the analysis of intercultural themes, of conflicts and resolutions by the characters in novels, biographies and films” (1986, p. 153). It is hence not surprising that Patrice Buzzanell, studying intercultural adaptation, should develop an argument about career design processes partly by calling attention to narrative fiction, viz. Lionel Shriver’s novel The Post-Birthday World (2012, pp. 85, 91-92): by bricolage, the same set of skills and abilities “can be channeled into different career paths.”
Michael Steppat has been Chair of Literature in English at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, where he also served as Academic Dean of the Faculty of Linguistics and Literary Studies for many years until he achieved Emeritus status in 2015.
He also holds a Professorial position of honor in Moscow from the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Higher Education and Science, having been coordinator of a cooperation network of five universities and becoming moderator of a research seminar at Moscow City University. In recent years he has been appointed regular visiting professor and external advising faculty member at Shanghai International Studies University, as well as visiting professor at Fu Jen Catholic University, Taipei (Taiwan); in earlier years he was invited as visiting professor at institutions in the UK and the USA. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Münster (Germany) and later his ‘Habilitation’ both from there and from the Free University of Berlin, he was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, then research professor at Arizona State University. He has repeatedly been awarded the Myra and Charlton Hinman Fellowship of Amherst College and the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC. To move in a new direction, he developed an internationally cooperative graduate program of Intercultural Anglophone Studies.
His book publications include Americanisms: Discourses of Exception, Exclusion, Exchange (2009); editions of several Renaissance Latin dramas (1991); Chances of Mischief: Variations of Fortune in Spenser (1990); co-editorship of the New Variorum edition of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1990); The Critical Reception of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1980); and a monograph on the early work of St. Augustine of Hippo (1980). Thus one research interest has been in the constructions of Orientalism in early modern literature. A collaborative volume on Writing Identity: The Construction of National Identity in American Literature (Moscow Region University Press, 2016) extends the research focus to identity discourses in American culture. As appointed member of the Modern Language Association of America’s editorial team for the International New Variorum Shakespeare, he continues to edit assigned plays. Spurred by an invitation from the London School of Economics and Social Science in 2011 to organize a workshop, based on the cooperative graduate program, Steppat has increasingly devoted attention to intercultural studies in connection with literature. The chief research interest in this regard is extending intercultural scrutiny of literature as well as film beyond historical comparison, and toward a processual or interactive notion of culture as practice and meeting ground. Imaginative representation of migrant situations and cultural minorities is especially pertinent in exploring the fertile terrain where literary and intercultural study discover each other.
In 2012 Steppat became Primary Investigator in a Bavarian government-sponsored Sino-German cooperative program on “Identity and Intercultural Communication: Perspectives on America”, which has enabled a symposium, the delivering of papers, and the conducting of workshops on intercultural literary study at various international institutions and conferences. The program has widened to considering Intercultural Communication as a resource for literary research. Connections between the range of research interests keep emerging, sometimes in unanticipated ways. Steppat has produced three volumes on Literature and Interculturality in the Intercultural Research book series, of which he is a co-editor (Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2019). He has been appointed a member of the national Cluster of Excellence “Africa Multiple”. Apart from theoretical and conceptual orientations, major focal areas in this context are diasporic discourses, representations of cross-cultural identities, as well as variations of cross-cultural transfer. A key concern is to understand difficult meanings in the artifacts we study not as a mental act but rather as a social practice and a communicative achievement.
On April 25, 2011, I gave two presentations at Shanghai International Studies University in China. The first was “Holding Intercultural / International / Interdisciplinary Dialogues” and was open to the public.
The second was “Asking Cultural Questions: Using Ethnography to Answer Questions about Cultural Identity” for a graduate seminar.
By chance, Dr. Kenneth Cushner (Professor of Education at Kent State University) and his wife, as well as Prof. Michael Steppat (Academic Dean of the School of Linguistics and Literatures, Universität Beyreuth, Germanyom) were both visiting the campus at the same time, and we were all part of the same lunch.
My thanks to Dr. Steve J. Kulich (Executive Director, SISU Intercultural Institute) for organizing the talks and introducing me to several colleagues as well as his Dean. Thanks also to Dr. Qiujun Zhou (Department of International Affairs and Public Management, Shanghai University of Political Science and Law) for helping with logistics of my visit to the city.
Director, Center for Intercultural Dialogue