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The Migrant Voice, Quiet and a little schizophrenic: Cultural Literacy and Migration


By Madeleine Campbell

‘The migrant voice, quiet and little schizophrenic’ was the title of a reading due to be given by Claudia Ciobanu, Romanian exile in Warsaw and editor-in-chief of Mămăliga de Varșovia magazine, a migrant literature periodical. Its co-founder Teodor Ajder, scheduled to give a talk on the ‘Multifaceted presence/absence of non-Polish writers living in Poland’, tells us the title means something like Cold Porridge in Warsaw. Unable to attend the Workshop’s panel session on ‘Self-Representation’, Claudia was literally represented by her compatriot Teodor, who introduced her as “a [Romanian] journalist who writes in English, lives in Poland and feels homeless.”

Claudia, whose topic is mainly ecology, had just published an article in The Guardian on the benefits of EU membership to Romania. Reading out an extract from Claudia’s essay, Teodor relates how she “retreated from Polishness into migranthood” when she started the magazine: MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q07Romanians wanted to read it in Romanian, and Poles in Polish. Running a bilingual mag, always being asked what it’s like to be a migrant, she felt that “to those asking me questions my migrant identity had swallowed up my whole being.”

Representation, even when it is self-representation, is a tricky aesthetic and moral question, all the more so in the context of the elusive, emotionally and politically charged notion of the migrant, and this topic dominated the two-day workshop held in Warsaw on the ‘Cultural Literacy of Migration: Affects, Memory, Concepts’.


“Copernicus”, in front of the Staszic Palace, Warsaw. Photo by Madeleine Campbell.

Hosted by the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IBL PAN), the workshop was a planning event for the forthcoming international Cultural Literacy in Europe (CLE) conference, scheduled for 10-12 May 2017, also to be hosted by IBL PAN. Maciej Maryl explained that IBL, which in Polish stands for Instytut Badan Literackich, was founded after the war and is unique in that it is a research institution, concentrating on long-term projects, like scholarly editions, documentation, and basic research mostly connected to history of literature but also cultural studies.

The first part of the workshop, held in the magnificent Staszic Palace on Nowy Świat, a stone’s throw from the Copernicus monument, introduced the work of Institute researchers. International participants, members of CLE and representatives from cultural, political, academic and activist organizations based in Poland, including the Polish Institute for International Affairs were also invited to present. Organized into four panels with short, ten-minute presentations followed by discussion, this widely diverse group of participants and perspectives generated a remarkably convergent set of observations. Recurring themes to emerge over the two days related to the discourse of migration, MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q08nationhood and guilt, the migrant’s voice and the special issue of language, the changing perceptions of young people in a multi-cultural, digital world, and specific readings of artefacts on migration.

Of several short films screened at the workshop, perhaps the most controversial was the Amnesty International film Look beyond Borders—4 mns Experiment. Presented by Draginja Nadażdin, Director of Amnesty International in Poland, the screening followed her talk on ‘Avoiding the responsibility for refugees’, when she observed that “calling [refugees] names is very common practice: we don’t hear political leaders trying to stop this rhetoric.”

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q06Based on a technique developed by American Psychologist Arthur Aron’s research on intimacy, the filmmakers invited refugees and non-refugees to spend 4 mns looking into each other’s eyes. New migrants couldn’t be found in Poland to participate: most prefer to go to other countries and this film was made in Berlin. In response to the screening, some argued that estrangement isn’t about empathy, it’s more about accepting that we are all different, and in this respect more of an intellectual development. For others it recalled the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “in the face to face there’s no knowledge, no labeling, no taking of the other.” Reservations were voiced, however, about the methodology, and scepticism about the artificially positive image it projected, given that the people featured constituted a self-selecting sample.

The film also prompted discussion about the current situation in Poland and the UK: “Many immigrants in Poland, here for over 10-20 years, are starting to fear more and more that they are ‘other’, in the last year. Opportunities for integration and contact are changing,” said a participant. Naomi Segal, of CLE, flagged that the same is happening in the UK, for example Jews who have been there for a long time are starting to feel on edge.

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q04Andrzej Leder, from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, postulated that the fact that the Holocaust was not worked through determines the attitudes of Poles towards immigrants: “We can hear this in the discourse about immigration; often ‘not our problem’, ‘we are not guilty’, all the sentences are testimony of a sense of helplessness and escape from responsibility.” When a group is deprived of political sovereignty, argued Andrzej, this kind of attitude to responsibility develops, along with a deep distrust of political hegemony and institutions — this is the post-communist narrative and this political shunning of responsibility then applies also to the moral dimension.

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q03The tone for the Panel on ‘Ethics and Memory’ was set by John Sundholm, who argued that “Memory is where we have arrived rather than where we have left.” Speaking for the working group funded by the Swedish Research Council on ‘The Cultural Practice of Immigrant Filmmaking (2013-2015)’, John said they wanted a new way of looking at memory, stressing agency and doability, and a movement in emphasis from artefacts to acts. Looking for some kind of theory of cultural production, John argued for temporary makings in different contexts and present-oriented practices. His working group is building an archive of films made by migrants themselves as a way of giving them voice, allowing ‘them’ to address ‘us’ directly. By way of example, John screened one such film, the haunting Five minutes for America in Quechua/Spanish, with subtitles in Swedish, based on a Cesar Galindopa poem.

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q10The topics for the second day of the workshop were ‘Self-representation’ and ‘Representing Migration’. Joanna Kosmalska spoke on Polish migrant literature in the British Isles and Ireland, much of which can be found at the University of Łódź in a virtual archive. There is a similarity between migrant writings and blogs, observed Joanna: short topic-oriented sections, Skype conversations, photos, emails, videoclips on YouTube. Their language is characterized by neologisms, acronyms, abbreviations, short sentences, instant messaging, linguistic hybridity, creolisation, polonised English words, interjections in Arabic, literal translations.

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q14Blogs and online diaries benefit from reader response, and they are already shaped by readership when taken up by publishing houses. The 2014 Finite Formulae & Theories of Chance, published by Arc in the UK, started out as a blog by a Polish poet who lives on the Isle of Wight, Wioletta Grzegorzewska (her surname abbreviated to Greg for the British public). Translated by Marek Kazmierski, it was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize. Such publications, Joanna argues, are emblematic of a new kind of cross-cultural, cross-linguistic exchange, and there is a surge of migrant writing full of social and cultural information, but arguably of little aesthetic value. Yet low brow can only be seen as such in the current context, for example Frankenstein was once considered low brow and is now a classic.

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q12Robert Crawshaw, from the University of Lancaster, noted the problem for theory posed by Ariane Mnouchkine’s Le dernier caravanserail. The opening scene was a reenactment of migrant travel across the ocean, and the movement of sheets rendered it very life-like. The play consisted of little episodes in which the artificiality and amateur performances were patently clear, but it nevertheless evoked a Brechtian identification. How to approach such forms of representation is a very significant issue for higher education: “what is,” he asks, “its impact, is it greater than a news broadcast?” The question arises as to how such virtual texts are to be read, where materiality and fictionality are confounded, neither literature not metaphorical, yet symbolic. This is very unlike, Robert remarked, Five Minutes for America, where a mysterious horse riderMC-TheMigrantVoice-Q09 is glimpsed through billowing smoke, meandering back and forth between the viewer and Quechua musicians through a scene of carnage: he could be a conquistador, a crusader, or an American football player.

Dorota Jarecka (IBL), who cooperates with different art institutions and teaches at the Academy of Fine Art, asked: “how do artists deal with representation when meeting ‘the other’, which is a form of power, [when] not representing is turning one’s back?” Postulating that it is primarily a question of distance and perspective, she compared modes of representation adopted by two very different contemporary artists: the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei and the British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien.

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q11Weiwei travelled to Lesbos, volunteered, took photos there, placing himself among the refugees, that he shared on Instagram. Dorota sees this as a gesture of inclusion, a sort of selfie, at once in the picture and outside of it while this is of course also a condition for the image. This raises the question as to how representation can be accurate. In January 2016, Weiwei crafted a photo of himself in the position of the drowned Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, found on a beach in Turkey after the boat his family took capsized on their journey to Kos. In Rabat, dozens of people laid down in the sand to pay tribute. But Weiwei’s image spread throughout the world. Paradoxically, such an image is representation because it is not direct — “[it] identifies with the other because Weiwei is someone else, yet he is also the other, also a refugee.”

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q05Dorota contrasted Weiwei’s work with Isaac Julien’s representation of Lampedusa in his multi-screen 2007 installation Small Boats, Slave Ships showing images symbolizing clandestine migration in the Mediterranean. Viewing such a lot of montage, transfers to other screens, black and white bodies appearing, some helped, some not, produces a feeling of detachment. On first impression it is embarrassing in aesthetic terms, appears devoid of any critical aspect. Yet, asks Dorota, what if Isaac Julien is aware of the political entanglement, what if he is, as second generation Caribbean, black and gay, playing out the difference? In another film called True North (2004), looking out on an ice-white setting reminiscent of a Caspar David Friedrich landscape, Julien claimed the medium as his tool to master the view. Thus, concludes Dorota, while Weiwei tries to make distance shorter, Julien tries to make it his.

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q13The final presentation was given by Paweł Mościcki (IBL) on the ‘Fleeing Visibility of the Refugees’. Discussing the 2004 film Border by Laura Waddington about illegal immigrants from Calais trying to get to the UK, Paweł noted the paradoxical truth of their situation where invisibility equates to an ability to move. Waddington’s film, Paweł suggests, is a poetic montage which shows not so much the direct reality as the relation between the filmer and ‘them’. Representation in Border, Paweł argues, is a chance to travel, the opposite of an illegal immigrant’s status: how can this be useful to migrants? In order to represent someone “we have to make him still, in a fixed frame, or even in film, it is immobilization — isn’t this exactly the same as mainstream media, transporting their presences in all sorts of spaces, an act of closing their existence? Ready-made, disposable.” Yet Waddington is trying to shift from representation to sharing, an ethical decision to stay with the refugees, not enclosing them in a suffocating identity. In the film there is also e-motion, movement of the affect, Paweł concluded, and as such these emotions can be shared.

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q15Wrapping up the discussion in the context of cultural literacy Naomi Segal aptly said the workshop had “covered the penumbra of migration.” A common question arising from most of the papers presented relates to how representation mediates the way we look at things. Another theme that emerged was the potential significance in understanding culture today of the more fluid phenomenon of movement, mobility, process (of beings, concepts, borders), which was contrasted with a narrower definition of migration, encumbered as it is with mediatized, socio-politically charged narratives: we live in a culture characterized by mobility, and in terms of cultural literacy this means that different acts of text are put in different contexts we don’t understand.

MC-TheMigrantVoice-Q02Thus although the theme envisaged for the 2017 conference was initially migration, the proposed outcome was to shift this theme out of its essentializing connotations to encompass broader notions of movement, motion and emotion on multiple intersecting planes: affect, the body and disability, the physical and digital movement of languages, concepts and images across social, geographical or national borders, and the defining elements of distance and perspective in reading or understanding the mobility of cultural acts and artefacts.


illustration_web_background_quarter1The Workshop Cultural Literacy of Migration: Affects, Memory, Concepts was held in Warsaw 18-19 May 2016, hosted by the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IBL PAN) and organised by Maciej Maryl, Anna Barcz, Dorota Jarecka, Adam Lipszyc, Karolina Felberg-Sandecka, Nina Kancewicz-Hoffman, Paweł Mościcki, Justyna Tabaszewska, and Marek Zaleski.

Embodiment, Food Ecology and Water Shortages: what do these have to do with Cultural Literacy?

On the First International Cultural Literacy in Europe Conference 16-18 April 2015, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities London

By Madeleine Campbell     

Water, observed Professor Dr Milena Žic Fuchs, should prove a rich source of inspiration for literary researchers. Yet when the European Science Foundation (ESF) issued a call for proposals on this topic, it was answered mainly by engineers, biologists, statisticians – not one proposal from the Humanities. The ESF, where Žic Fuchs was Chair of Standing Committee for the Humanities, was set up to foster cross-cultural research across a wide spectrum including the social sciences and humanities. After 40 years of stimulating European research through its networking and coordination activities, its many projects have come to an end and there is no prospect of a replacement at the EU level for this mission-oriented organization. European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST), another EU organism with a related remit, is unusual in that it is “bottom-up,” driven by the needs and proposals of member states through relevant administrative umbrellas within National Contact Points, for example Social Sciences and the Humanities (SSH). In this respect COST differs fundamentally from the European Union’s Framework Programme, which funds pan-European research along broad policy lines. Once one has navigated the maze of euro-acronyms, it becomes clear that both ESF and COST, as well as being pan-European, had/have an interdisciplinary remit that spans the Arts and the Sciences, despite the apparent misnomer. In monolingual English circles the term “science” is often opposed to, rather than associated with, the term “humanities,” which might account in part for the lack of response from the latter lamented by Žic Fuchs on the topic of water.

Leafing through the COST booklet 2014-2015 will find both completed and ongoing projects covering areas ranging from the danger to crops and public health of parakeet migration in Western Europe to the potential of sewage as a diagnostic tool for urban populations, the latter offering discourse worthy of a postmodern Lautréamont. Of particular interest are the COST Actions categorized as Trans-Domain, described as “an extension of interdisciplinary research” where “transdisciplinary research can lead to the evolution of [new] disciplines” and they include topics that, with a little imagination, may yield significant outcomes for comparative literature and translation, such as “Colour and Space in Cultural Heritage,” or “Time in Mental Activity.” Although not generally thought of as a potential source of funding in cultural or literary studies, COST may well prove to be relevant to, for example, innovative translation projects and with the new open call procedure under way, now may be the time to start exploring this avenue for those with large, interinstitutional and interdisciplinary ambitions.

Such ambitions are evident in the Cultural Literacy in Europe (CLE) initiative, whose steering committee published an ESF-COST Science Policy Briefing in January 2013 and a volume of seventeen essays, From Literature to Cultural Literacy, coedited by Naomi Segal and Daniela Koleva (2014). CLE also held their first Conference in London in April 2015.  Over two days of keynotes, papers and passionate exchanges at Birkbeck College about the future of Cultural Literacy in Europe, the question organizers wanted participants to debate was: “How can Literary and Cultural Studies (LCS) contribute to solving major challenges of Europe today?” However, in contrast with literary studies, where discussion of, for example, “engaged” literature might tend to involve topics revolving around issues of politics and identity, at this conference the four parallel panel sessions covered Cultural Memory, Migration & Translation, Electronic Textuality, and Biopolitics, Biosociality and the Body; the latter theme focused on the dimension of the human as bio-social animal and body on a fragile planet. This explicit inclusion of the body as both a virtual and physical dimension of culture seems of a piece with Marina Warner’s apposite comment in her William Matthews Lecture in June 2015, as previewed in the Guardian: “several of the writers we read are nomadic, willingly or unwillingly part of the contemporary world’s diasporas, while imaginatively, they inhabit places far and wide besides those which the body occupies or birth allotted.”

At a time when the Humanities in general, and Literary and Cultural Studies in particular, are under increasing pressure to justify themselves, it was announced that the CLE initiative that organized this Conference was, like its sponsor the ESF, reaching the end of its cycle. There was therefore a sense of urgency, as well as rigorous scholarly enquiry in the buzz of committed researchers coming together from all corners of Europe and beyond to exchange thoughts and formulate an action plan.

When Professor Maureen Freely, Chair of English PEN and of the Faculty of Arts at Warwick University asked the rhetorical question: “What is Cultural Literacy?,” the tactical need for a short slogan that “sums up” cultural literacy and introduces it in societal discourse was mooted, citing as example Zygmunt Bauman’s seminal mantra “Converse or Perish.” Rather than further institutionalize concepts of culture, the working group in which I participated to discuss this question concluded that we ought to think at the dynamic level of transnational and transregional encounters, as opposed to the more static concept of heritage. The plenary identified the need to link research and teaching at the interface of disciplines, and to network across both disciplines and borders. One example of best practice cited was the Monash and Warwick Erasmus Mundus-funded programme to promote student exchanges between these two universities. A related conclusion of the working group I attended was the imperative to move away from the monolingual, native speaker model of attainment in higher education.

A natural consequence of this shift in emphasis involves foregrounding the role translation has to play in LCS. Translated texts tend to be opaque and demand “an active response,” as noted by Loredana Polezzi, a member of the Conference Steering Committee who chaired the Translation and Migration Panel. As such their reading invites individual and collective “microspection,” as defined by Professor Michael Cronin of Dublin University, in the local and situated present. Further aspects of this question were debated from various perspectives during this panel’s sessions, when Michael Cronin for example likened translation ecology to food ecology and argued against the “hylomorphic” mass production model that imposes a semantic regime of “identicality,” producing the same thing over and over again. In his abstract he stressed that, similar to the importance of sourcing food locally for a sustainable ecology, “a commitment to the situatedness of place and the preeminence of context must underline any form of translation practice.”

Dr Nick Monk of Warwick University, Associate Professor and Director of the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) and Gabriel García-Ochoa of Monash University took a practice workshop on cultural difference and the ways in which we tend to recognize such differences. Organized in pairs or in small groups, we undertook a series of embodied exercises in which we adopted, knowingly or not, different levels of social status. In one exercise we drew playing cards from one to ten and displayed them on our foreheads without viewing them first: the lower the number, the lower the status. I drew a card with low status and, from the shunning that ensued, quickly recognized colleagues of the same rank: the higher ranked participants’ reactions led us to consider why we were different from them, rather than why they were different from us. This distinction, based on the concept of the “self-reflexive approach,” argued Nick Monk, may appear subtle, but is increasingly relevant in HE today.

Professor Aleida Assmann, of the University of Konstanz shared her ongoing research “Resonance and Impact: towards a Theory of the Emotions in Cultural Memory.” Aleida Assman charted patterns of emotional trauma through their cultural figuration in the media, in terms of both “pre-mediation” or “re-mediation,” citing for example how 9/11 re-triggered memories of Holocaust events for Jewish people and, for Americans, memories of Pearl Harbor. It might also be argued, in keeping with the theme of the Conference Panel on Biopolitics, Biosociality and the Body, that the impact of strong affect could literally be inscribed on the body to be passed on to future generations (in a possible extension to the current field of epigenetics) and this might prove an example where societal research would benefit from a cross-over between literary theory and bio-genetic studies.

One output of the 2016 London Conference was the formulation of the “London statement,” which reiterates the definition of Cultural Literacy given in the Steering Committee’s 2013 policy paper as  “an ability to view the social and cultural phenomena that shape our lives – bodies of knowledge, fields of social action, individuals or groups, and of course cultural artefacts – as being essentially readable.” The London Statement also confirmed the formation of the CLE Forum for LCS research, and its newly enlarged Core Group held its first meeting in November 2015 to start planning the next international Conference. As a follow-on planning event, a workshop on the Cultural Literacy of Migration: Affects, Memory, Concepts is soon to be held in Poland (Warsaw 18-19 May 2016) to introduce and anticipate the main Cultural Literacy in Europe Forum conference at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IBL PAN) in 2017. The aim of the workshop is to jointly map and delineate research areas and research directions, which could be of common interest and would then constitute a core substrate for the 2017 Conference.

Understanding contemporary migration in European societies requires reading it consistently and methodically as a literary phenomenon. Issues will be discussed in four panels dedicated to different aspects of migration:

  1. Bodily and affective experiences of relations between migrants and locals.
  2. Reading representations of migrants in literature, popular culture and the media of the host country, and vice versa: reading analogical representations of locals in immigrants’ cultural output.
  3. (Re-)readings of the past in contemporary discussions on migration. How the past is used to explain political agendas and attitudes towards migrants.
  4. Migration as a paradigm for the humanities. In what way can philosophical notions, or concepts in sociology of science on migration be used to shed more light on the source phenomenon?

It is hoped that these workshop panels will in turn help the Conference Steering Group to focus in on pertinent domains and themes to draw up the cfp for the 2017 Conference, also to be held in Warsaw under the aegis of IBL PAN.

A list of partner organisations, abstracts for the four panels of the London 2015 Conference, speaker bios and the London Statement can be found on