Poniższy tekst został wygłoszony w czasie konferencji “The Next Step: Building Strategies for the Development of Minority Cultures and Languages in Europe”, która odbyła się Belfaście w dniach 25-26.11.2016 r. Odczytowi towarzyszyła prezentacja w programie Power Point, jednak ze względu na wykorzystanie materiałów chronionych prawami autorskimi nie może ona zostać zamieszczona w internecie.
The Centre for the Study of Minor Cultures in Katowice – Its Research, Resources and Objectives
To begin with, I would like to clearly define the position from which I am going to speak and the reasons why I want to enlarge on a project which we have recently launched in Katowice. The position is that of an academic AND an intellectual in the traditional, “French”, socially and publicly responsible sense of the word; an intellectual who works alongside a team of like-minded people. Simultaneously, I am here as one of the founding members of the Centre for the Study of Minor Cultures in Katowice (and also its director) and I have been entitled to speak on behalf of all my colleagues. The reasons why I want to discuss the Centre are simple and, I believe, directly relevant to the theme of this conference. Namely, our research centre has been created in response to the problems that most of us here are vitally interested in. Moreover, what we do as individual researchers and what we want to do as a team may prove to engage not only the key concerns of this conference but also some central issues to do with minority cultures and languages at large. Finally, I would like to offer a few suggestions how our Centre may contribute to the development of a network of organizations concerned with minority cultures and languages.
Now, the story of how our research centre originated will have many versions, some of them apocryphal. Mine is canonical, but by no means exhaustive. The germ of an idea for comparative studies in which Upper Silesia would be juxtaposed with Ulster emerged in our talks with Professor Frank Ferguson early in 2015. Then we continued our partnership with Professor Ferguson and I got to know Professor Wesley Hutchenson who, in May 2016, invited me to Paris to talk about Upper Silesia as a minority culture. Meanwhile I turned to my friend, Zbigniew Kadłubek, who is a supreme authority on all things Silesian, and I suggested we do something together, given our mutual interest in minority cultures and literatures and our genuine commitment to Upper Silesia and its culture. In no time at all did Zbigniew come up with the idea of establishing a research centre at the University of Silesia. Moreover, he insisted that I be its first director, the only criterion being, I suppose, that my English is slightly better. The Centre for the Study of Minor Cultures was officially launched two months ago – by that time we had invited several colleagues to join our ranks as the founding members. I will introduce them individually in a moment; first, let me tell you a few words about the underlying idea of our research centre and our status within the university.
There is the core team of 8 academics, most of them professors (with post-doctoral degrees), and others are loosely associated with the Centre, which means that they work with us, contribute and benefit but we are not formally in charge of their research and other academic or non-academic efforts. We are answerable directly to the Dean of our Faculty (the Faculty of Philology) who formally oversees our academic activity. To be sure, it is not just research that we have in mind by developing a project like this, but public outreach, too. As you can read in our mission statement: “although research is our priority, we also seek to develop close ties with social and cultural institutions in our region, initiate collaborative projects with international partners and encourage like-minded colleagues to join us in our efforts to promote cultural diversity and equality. We come from all walks of the humanities, including Polish, modern languages, cultural studies, linguistics and postcolonial studies. What brings us together is both enthusiasm and respect for minor cultures…”.
It is high time, at this point, to explain why we use the notion of minor cultures, rather than minority cultures. The short, and somewhat simplified, answer is that ‘minor culture’ is a more capacious category. There are two apparently obvious yet crucial points that must be stressed right away. ‘Minor’ in our usage does not imply any inferior (moral or aesthetic) quality or, for that matter, any other kind of intrinsic inferiority. Rather, it implies an underprivileged status vis a vis a major, dominant culture but the status is usually a matter of political and economic imbalances. Secondly, by applying this particular qualifier to cultures, we inevitably place them in confrontation with other, dominant cultures which determine and define their status. The implied comparative degree of ‘minor’ draws our immediate attention to the asymmetric interaction between the periphery and the centre, between a cultural David and a cultural Goliath.
The idea of describing cultures and literatures along those lines is not new. One of the first major works to use the notion of minor literature was Kafka: pour une littérature mineure [Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature] by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, published in 1975. In chapter III of their book, titled What Is Minor Literature?, Deleuze and Guattari thus define the notion of a minor literature: it “is not the literature of a minor language but the literature a minority makes in a major language.” Relevant as this definition seems to Kafka (as well as Joyce and Beckett, whom they also mention in passing), it does not open enough avenues for exploring all the possible cultural and geo-political contexts in Europe and elsewhere. However, rather than pick holes in Deleuze and Guattari’s definition I want to enlarge on the three characteristics of minor literature, which they list immediately following their definition.
The characteristics prove to be, in my view, more inspiring than the definition itself. The first characteristic involves various aspects of the deterritorialization of language; Deleuze and Guattari’s usage of the term is highly idiosyncratic here but in other contexts this category might translate into (or imply) the relegation to the cultural periphery, exile, the borderland, the margins, or the outskirts. [Of course, it may be argued that this is not necessarily a bad thing] The second characteristic of a minor literature is that it inevitably acquires a political quality (p.16). Deleuze and Guattari insist that, unlike “great” literatures, “because [a minor literature] exists in a narrow space, every individual matter is immediately plugged into the political” (p.16). And finally, the last characteristic of minor literatures is that they are possessed of a collective value because of what Deleuze and Guattari identify as “the rarity of talents” (p.17). That is a positive value, to be sure: thereby, writers who contribute to minor literatures are likely to produce “an active solidarity” (p. 17).
Of the three characteristics mentioned above, all seem to be relevant to how we construe the notion of minor cultures, although in varying degrees. It is tempting to see the way Deuleze and Guattari define minor literatures as a synecdoche for minor cultures but I believe this is a blind alley; rather I would see their essay as a stimulus to the kind of rhizomatous imagination they themselves were so fond of. Today minor cultures yield to plenty of definitions, and most of them involve an antagonistic aspect implied by the phrase. There is no minor culture without a major culture which usually diminishes and overshadows its lesser neighbours. A major culture institutes and imposes a hierarchy, an asymmetrical dynamics between cultures, which may eventuate in reducing the differences and in what is technically called a homogenization of cultures and identities – always to the benefit of the major one and to the detriment of minor ones. That is why Deleuze and Guattari are correct to emphasize a political and collective underpinning of much (but not necessarily all) artistic or intellectual activity within minor cultures. That is also why I am inclined to suggest (following their trope of detteritorialization) that minor literatures – as representative of minor cultures – identify, defend, reclaim, restake, reappropriate, decolonize, shelter or nurture their own territories (either physical or imaginary).
Central to our understanding of minor cultures are also the notions of power and commitment. Minor cultures may be described as relatively powerless against officially recognized and state-sponsored institutions, systems and establishments. They are at the mercy of the apparatus of power and that is one of the most important reasons why they deserve not only attention but also support and care, also from academic quarters (however powerless we might be ourselves). At the same time, minor cultures enjoy a genuine commitment of their members who often form tight-knit communities based on shared customs, tradition, history, language or dialect (ethnolect). Their ties are authentic; in most cases they have a very clear sense of their own ethnic identity. In minor cultures, the communities are not only “imagined,” to use the qualifier popularized by Benedict Anderson; they are actual.
The political predicament of minor cultures may lead to what I would identify – for want of a better name – as “a minority complex.” This is closely related to the imperative to speak on behalf of a certain collectivity, rather than as an individual. When Deleuze and Guattari remark that in minor literatures there are no great writers (but then they list Kafka, Joyce and Beckett…), they imply that genius must be subordinated to a larger cause. This issue is in fact tied up with the problem of minor languages and their promotion, recognition, translatability and visibility but, other than that, I believe that Deleuze and Guattari are wrong to make their claim so categorically. Writers and artists who work within minor cultures can successfully combine expressions of their individuality and contributions to the collective ethos of their communities. To give you an example taken from my own minor culture: Szczepan Twardoch, a Silesian novelist, is a case in point. He has overcome the minority complex I mentioned above to become a writer of great international stature and at the same time he has always produced his works from a clearly defined locus on earth, which is best exemplified by his magnum opus, Drach.
Twardoch’s work brings me to the minor culture which is a major focus of our attention in the Centre for the Study of Minor Cultures in Katowice. Based at the University of Silesia, we want to combine our academic interests with larger issues of identity politics and social commitments to a region where ethnic tensions and minority questions have always been swept under the carpet. While exploring various minor cultures in Europe and elsewhere, we do not want to lose sight of our local culture which informs our perspectives and, inevitably, inspires our research. Upper Silesia is a starting point for our reflection on minor cultures – as a benchmark and a kind of cultural workshop which is close at hand. It also serves as a useful point of reference for comparative studies in which two or more minor cultures may be quarried for analogies and contrasts. Needless to say, those can be illuminating in both directions: one of the most interesting examples of historical explorations in which Silesia is placed side by side with Ulster can be found in T. K. Wilson’s book Frontiers of Violence: Conflict and Identity in Ulster and Upper Silesia, 1918-1922.
During the Paris conference I talked at length about the history of Silesia and its complicated political situation. Now, its contemporary culture largely conforms to the characteristics offered by Deleuze and Guattari. However, it is also possessed of a certain ebullient (that’s a nice, European word!) potential which incorporates elements of the carnivalesque and the heteroglossic (this is evident in literary texts by Twardoch and others). Let me illustrate the inclusiveness of Silesian culture by a performance recorded last year – this is an industrial rock band called Oberschlesien accompanied by a section of coalminers’ amateur orchestra, singing a poem by Goethe (“King of the Fairies/The Erl-King” [Der Erlkönig]) in Silesian (video clip). What this example also illustrates, I believe, is both a vulnerable and enriching aspect of Silesian popular culture, which I would call its porosity. It is a culture which finds it quite easy to absorb various influences and syncretically make them its own.
Now, let me return for a moment to the notion of the minority complex which I introduced earlier. One of our priorities as a research centre is connected with developing international partnerships with related institutions and organizations because we firmly believe that by exposing minor cultures to each other – by learning more about each other’s problems and apprehensions – we are likely to overcome the minority complex and come to appreciate both our own and each other’s unique identities. Therefore, we are happy to get involved in comparative projects, as well as offer our assistance and humble resources to all those researchers who are interested in Silesian studies, or minority studies in Silesia in general. We see collaborative efforts as a perfect opportunity to learn and to share – to enhance our understanding of culture at large.
One of the opportunities that we would like to offer our colleagues from Northern Ireland and France is a journal to be published by the University of Silesia press. The journal, published biannually in English (hopefully, beginning next year in autumn), could be a platform for minority issues, open to researchers who specialize in cultural studies, anthropology, literary studies, linguistics, history, political sciences and other related disciplines. A tentative title we have come up with is: Minotaur. On the most general level, the title refers to the common ancient roots of European civilization and (both major and minor) cultures; more specifically, it alludes to certain intrinsic power structures (human authority/domination over nature; subordination of hybridity) as well as commonplace (mis)perceptions of minor cultures. I believe that a joint international editorship of the journal will ensure its quality and academic recognition.
Finally, I would like to invite you all to Katowice where next year I hope we could hold the next conference concerned with both minor and minority cultures and languages. It is a perfect venue for a conference like that: Katowice is a major Polish airport and a thriving modern city; it is a city of gardens and a city of cutting-edge technology at the same time. It is the capital of Upper Silesia but the region has much more to offer and its offer is conveniently located within a very close parameter of Katowice. The University of Silesia will be happy to host researchers interested in minority issues, as our Centre is committed to developing and sustaining our partnership with Ulster University and Universite Sorbonne Nouvelle III as well as other academic and non-academic institutions and organizations.