Bringing down the Lego House and Building It back Up

This week, I’ve decided to go a little bit off track. Instead of a reading response, I am writing about a matter that’s been in the back of my mind for a while now. This may come off more as a rambling than an actual coherent reflection, since I am going off on a particular issue that came up as I went deeper and deeper into the Rhet/Comp field. Earlier this week, while I was reviewing some class readings, I was brought back to a question I have continuously asked to both myself and the texts we’ve been reading: must all questions have answers, and must we have a solution for every problem? Regarding Rhet/Comp in particular, must we necessarily find a way to integrate all discursive practices into one harmonious package?

I would like to argue that we don’t. Rhet/Comp is a complicated and diverse place. It is made up of cultural, discursive, pedagogical, methodological tensions that give for the most interesting and complex of discussions, out of which numerous questions, debates and ideas arise. Our class is the living proof of this. But Rhet/Comp is also a field where problems sometimes seem to take center stage and coming up with a neat solution that caters to the needs and opinions of everyone often seems like a priority. One of those problems, which we’ve discussed amply in the World Rhetorics course, is how to understand, acknowledge and integrate different rhetorical practices into the teaching of writing. But do we really have to answer the “how to” question? Can’t we just question? We strive so hard to come up with answers and solutions for problems that it feels that we sometimes stifle the discussion by reducing it to a puzzle we have to complete by the end of the course.

Problems do not have to have neat, harmonious solutions. Questions don’t always need to have complete, all-encompassing answers. Sometimes, it is alright to say “I don’t know,” because it keeps the discussion alive, it allows new voices to join in, new ideas and knowledge to accumulate, intertwine or even challenge other ideas and previously established forms of knowledge. It’s good not to know whether the cat is really alive or dead, because then there is space for unconventional possibilities, multiple states of being, more than one way of looking at a particular subject.

By saying that we don’t need to have an answer for everything, I’m not letting people off the hook to not discuss the subject. On the contrary, I am saying that teachers, students, scholars, everyone, should actively pursue dialogue, one where the goal is not to say who’s right or wrong, or come up with a framework where everybody’s opinions and theories can somehow be integrated into one artfully constructed Lego house. Instead, we should pursue a type of dialogue where the goal is to share different ideas and perspectives, to learn about all the different ways of looking at that blackbird – or at different rhetorics in this case – and acknowledging that they are all valid. Of course, this won’t work if the person is actually looking at a parrot and thinking it’s a blackbird.

This is, I believe, a perspective that could successfully be implemented in the classroom. Instead of simply discussing different rhetorical practices in class, the teacher should promote a discussion where these tensions are acknowledged and actively debated by students themselves. Many of them may not even be aware that such tensions exist. So, teachers should lay the problem out in front of the students and see what type of Lego house they will build with it. In the end, the teacher should openly acknowledge that there is no one solution to this issue. Both teachers and students should be encouraged to say “I don’t know” more often and continue from there.

Updating the Oldsmobile in the Digital Landscape

Porter’s article seems to matter now more than ever, as communication is heavily mediated by digital codes and the technological conventions of social networks. In “Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric,” he argues that delivery, one of the five canons of Greek rhetoric that pertains to the way that we convey our discourse, in speech or in writing, is increasingly becoming the most important element of the rhetorical act. Throughout the article, Porter attempts to revive the concept of delivery within the current digital landscape as techne, a form of knowledge, and develops a theoretical framework that covers five main topics: body/identity, distribution/circulation, access/accessibility, interaction and economics.

Porter starts out with an overview of delivery as a rhetorical component from the classical period to its disappearance with the advent of the printing press. He compares Aristotle’s notion of delivery as a public speech that did not require “artistic labors,” such as, for instance, invention and style, to Cicero’s valorization as an important emotional and persuasive tool (3). He mentions the effect that the printing press had on the concept of knowledge itself, but also on how delivery came to be perceived as a result of mass written production of texts (4-5), as the emphasis on writing made delivery a secondary, or even useless, technique. Porter then goes on to explore the role of delivery in technologically mediated communication.

I found the body/identity relationship particularly interesting (my MA thesis will actually focus on this subject), as Porter emphasizes the importance of both physical and virtual representation, defining the body as a sort of “performance” or “text” through which we communicate and persuade (8). In this context, a change in the bodily representation means a change in the way the message is conveyed. Better yet, the body becomes, in a sense, the message, the information. Discourse becomes, then, it seems, deeply ingrained in bodily identity. Even in the virtual spaces – cyberspaces, as scholars used to call them in the 80s – one is never completely free from some sort of bodily identity, or from issues of gender, race, sexual preference and age (8-9). Although digital spaces have opened up a set of possibilities for identity formation and representation, users are still limited by real, physical issues that influence the way they choose to present themselves.

Porter also brings up the issue of audience and how to tailor delivery to achieve the strongest impact. This will depend on a negotiation between the writer and audience of the four other elements that compose the act of delivery: distribution – how you choose to “package” the message, – access and accessibility – who you make it available to by the media you choose, – interaction and interactivity – how you engage with others and the technology you use, – and economics – the value we/others attribute to the rhetorical product.

Porter raises very interesting issues about delivery. The most important one has to do, I think, with the level of accessibility and availability of the technology and of digital spaces of communication. He points out that, despite common belief, digital media/rhetorics are still very much limited to what can be considered a “privileged minority” that has access, the physical ability or even the skills to use them. This leaves a vast majority of people out of what are now becoming the prevalent modes of communication. This leads me to ask, then: can this shift in the way we produce and deliver discourse (from the physical act of writing to the codes and multimodality of the digital environments) actually make rhetorical composition more of an exclusionary activity? Or is there a way to gradually increase access/accessibility to integrate and reach those who are outside the digital landscape?

*insert witty title about revisiting the past*

In their essays, Hutto and Campbell describe several rhetorical traditions practiced in Africa centuries ago, showing that Greek rhetoric was not the only, nor necessarily the best, discursive practice of the Ancient World. These essays reveal that, despite the dominance of Greco-Roman rhetoric around the world today (perpetuated by the West’s assumed ideological, political and cultural supremacy over other cultures and rhetorics), many rhetorical practices actually have roots in other, equally ancient and valid, discursive frameworks and distinct purposes, presenting, therefore, “alternative views on what makes a skilled speaker” (Hutto 1).

Hutto’s analysis of ancient Egyptian rhetoric shows that what most have internalized as “the purpose of rhetoric,” that is, the Greek notion of “eloquent expression” and persuasion, does not actually apply to all rhetorical practices. In fact, ancient Egyptian discourse seemed to emphasize a “balance between eloquence and wise silence,” where knowing when not to speak was a valued skill (1). Good rhetorical skills and silence did not serve the purpose of self-expression so much as they were aimed at developing good citizens in the public sphere and good people in the private. It was also, in opposition to Greek rhetoric as Hutto points out, a way to reinforce the social status quo (1; 6). Similarly to what Matalene describes about Chinese rhetoric in “Contrastive Rhetoric: An American Writing Teacher in China,” Egyptian rhetoric relied heavily on the repetition of traditional maxims as a sign of respect for authority and the past (1; 6). Invention and originality, emphasized in the Greco-Roman-Anglo-American model, didn’t matter much to ancient Egyptians. Instead, as the author points out, the most important rhetorical features one could possess were “silence, restraint and truth” (9), which would ensure the upkeep of the social hierarchy, but also curb self-involved egos and develop credible ethos by advising modesty towards their social or intellectual “inferiors” and allowing others to speak (7). On a religious level, language was seen as a powerful tool, having the power to create worlds (much like in Christianity) and potentially save the individual’s soul in the afterlife (3-4).

It is interesting to notice that, throughout the essay, Hutto uses a comparative approach, describing Egyptian rhetoric (or rhetorics, as the author points out that external influences affected language and discourse in different ways throughout Egyptian history (2)) in relation to Greek rhetoric, and often relying on the work of Western scholars such as Michael Fox, George Kennedy and Antonio Loprieno, which may attest to the dominance of Western scholarship in Rhet/Comp Studies and the need to extend it to other, more localized, and perhaps more specialized, voices. Campbell, on the other hand, immediately acknowledges the recent shift in Rhet/Comp to the exploration of non-Western cultures and rhetorics and attempts to provide a description of ancient Ethiopian rhetoric within the context of other ancient African discursive practices (255)-256). In fact, Campbell argues for the need to study African non-literate (that is, predominantly oral) practices independently from the Western tradition, as they possess distinct features (257). As Campbell shows, despite their largely oral tradition, the cultures of cities such as Napata, Meroe and Axum possessed their own rhetorical practices, which, similarly to ancient Egyptian rhetoric, had a moralistic intention and were aimed at elevating the ethos of the speaker (261). Another important feature of some of these cultures was the connection between rhetoric and divinity: figures of authority often drew their rhetorical and political power from invocations to god’s protection (266).

In seemingly different ways, both authors aim to show that there was once rhetorical diversity in Africa that was as complex as, and independent from, Western rhetoric. Campbell’s words sum it up very well: “Africa has rhetorical traditions that are oral and literate; ancient and modern; political, religious, and social – in other words, traditions that are as rich and diverse as any in the Western world” (274). But, as this author also acknowledges, this diversity is still very much unstudied, leading to misconceptions about these cultures and rhetorics. Perhaps what we need is a paradigm shift that focuses on the value and validity of these practices, that puts them at the center of the discussion for once. The question is, how do we go about making that happen?

Teaching Writing in Portugal

This week, instead of commenting on one of the readings, I thought I would write about the practice of teaching writing in Portugal, based on a survey carried out by Prof. John Elliott at the University of Lisbon ( For many educators, writing is still seen as the primary indicator of literacy and academic success. However, the strategies used often fall short of actually motivating students to write or developing their writing skills.

The teaching of writing in Portugal still tends to emphasize theoretical frameworks in detriment of practical activities where the student has the chance to apply what he/she has learned. Classes are still very much based on the teacher speaking and showing a set of rules and the students having to absorb them for later application in tests. Students are taught into all sorts of fictional and nonfictional genres, mostly through reading and analysis, with the sole purpose of being able to distinguish them, but not necessarily to write in them.        But what is most noticeable is the amount of attention paid to grammar as a marker of good writing. Extensive class time is spent on the explanation of grammatical rules and terminology and applying them to isolated instances (fill in the blanks type of exercises) instead of working them into the actual process of writing. The ultimate goal of teaching writing is to enable students to respond to generic prompts (often argumentative essays between 200-300 words) and succeed in exams where they are assessed for reading skills (even the teaching of reading is a problem, since students are often drilled on concepts disembodied from real text and assessment depends much more on the students’ ability to memorize and dump information on to paper than on their ability to interpret and analyze the piece of text in front of them) and grammar.

The results of Elliott’s survey of the students’ relationship with writing at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lisbon seems to indicate that this pedagogical approach does not prepare students for academic writing or even writing in general. According to Elliott, students attach less importance to writing than to speaking and do not feel motivated to write because of the theoretical focus and the limited creative outlet. He states that “there is a world of difference between the idea and the execution of that idea” (59). In other words, students express interest in writing, but do not feel motivated to perform the written tasks for class. The survey reflects another problem: students appear to equate good writing with good grammar and the ability to follow certain conventions. When asked about their preferred mode of assessment, a majority of students replied that the most useful comments were those on grammatical correction, punctuation and spelling.

In the final part of the survey, Elliott asked students to further comment on writing and several mentioned the lack of creativity and freedom as reasons for not being interested in improving their writing. Others did not feel that they had enough skills to write (which may be attributed to the focus on surface-level issues instead of higher order concerns) and some even suggested doing more writing in class and as homework (which may indicate that there is insufficient practice).

This study suggests, then, that teachers in Portugal need to rethink their approaches to teaching writing, as they are clearly not preparing or motivating the students to the task at hand. There needs to be a bigger focus on writing as an activity that encases more than just grammar, that has a purpose other than assessment and that the student can become truly engaged in.

Local, Global, Glocal Knowledge(s)?

In “Reconstructing Local Knowledge,” Suresh Canagarajah explains how the concept of “local knowledge” has been historically and ideologically perceived in different disciplines, including Rhet/Comp. Throughout the essay, Canagarajah expounds on the history of prejudice that has surrounded the term, essentially attributing it to a binary ideological context that tends to favor more widely adopted value and rhetorical systems in detriment of localized types of knowledge-making frameworks, often associated with specific cultural traditions, and, as a consequence, considered anachronistic and limited in their scope of influence.

Canagarajah addresses a very important issue right at the beginning of the essay: what is essentially knowledge and who is responsible for defining this concept? He starts by tracing the evolution of the expression “local knowledge” throughout different types of discourse – anthropological, social, academic, professional – and points out the fact that, in all of them, local knowledge is perceived as “context bound, community specific, and nonsystematic” (244). For that reason, local knowledge tends to be perceived as inferior, irrational or unreliable by many, often associated with superstitions, myth and backward traditions that no longer seem to have a place in the current landscape. However, as he argues, this perception is created by those who hold political, ideological and, most importantly, discursive power, often smothering the small yet distinct voices of local populations. For Canagarajah, European cultures, through modernist ideals and colonialist practices, were responsible for the suppression of local cultural specificities, as they “refused to acknowledge that the divergent cultural practices of other communities could have a parallel life of equal validity,” thus attempting to assimilate them into what they believed to be “the right way” to do things or “the right type of knowledge” (245). As a consequence, Canagarajah argues, all forms of local knowledge were simply subjected and replaced by another form of local knowledge (246).

It is interesting to see, particularly in this essay, how the notion of knowledge and its dissemination do not seem to have changed much in the last couple of centuries. As Canagarajah argues, despite of the fragmented and fragmentary nature of postmodernist thought and the technological success in channeling local voices into the dominant discourse of the West, there seems to remain an unbalanced power relationship, as local identities are only ever shown through the lens of the dominant culture, which tends to construe them as static artifacts rooted to a specific time and place. As he points out, even local scholars have to resort to Western rhetorical tools in order to study and understand local specificities (250). The world of academic publishing also helps perpetuate the dominance of Western discourse, since “[t]he prestigious journals in almost every discipline are published in the English language and from Western locations” and periphery scholars often lack the resources and networks to produce their own publications (254). Local communities should instead be perceived as “relational and fluid construct[s]” that have their own idiosyncrasies and internal tensions, and, most importantly, that are constantly changing. Many of them, as the author points out, have even become transnational, as they have taken and kept their traditions alive elsewhere, occupying new physical and virtual borders, and thus questioning the dominant claim that local knowledge is geographically static (249).

Canagarajah calls, then, for new rhetorical and cultural practices that allow dominant and local discourses to negotiate their existence on an equal footing (251). The twist, he argues, is we should position ourselves not on the side of Western rhetoric (as has been case so far), but on the side of local knowledge(s). This requires a double process of deconstruction and reconstruction of both the dominant form of discourse and the local forms of knowledge: not only must we question and look for the gaps in the established knowledge, but we also need to interpret and reinterpret local knowledge as it changes, paying attention to its uniqueness while, at the same time, recognizing its limitations (252-253). For this purpose, it is necessary that we provide the means and outlets for local scholars to participate, as well as new modes of presentation that integrate the types of discourse in which these scholars are better versed (or that are particular to a specific form of local knowledge) (255).

While Canagarajah’s words are encouraging, there is still the logistic problem of how we can go about doing it. As other authors have discussed, this is a matter of breaking a centuries long cycle of the West’s ideological and rhetorical domination. How can we bring local discourse into the global – if there is such a thing as global discourse, since it is, essentially, just another type of local discourse? Do we have the tools to fully examine, understand and use these local rhetorics interchangeably with Western discourse?

That Other Place

In “Re-Composing Space,” Binkley and Smith argue that Composition Studies has become a biased and exclusionary field, by privileging Western discourse as the preferred rhetorical mode, against which all other rhetorical traditions are compared and often found lacking in some aspects. The authors see this problem as a result of a geopolitical dominance of Ancient Greek rhetorics, itself also a prejudiced and exclusionary system, in the West that leaves out everyone who does not share this common historical, social and ideological frame of reference (2006: 1). Adopting a postmodernist stance, Binkley and Smith set out to deconstruct Composition Studies as a “spatially specific and time constrained” field that tends to follow the Western rhetorical framework and, under an appearance of democracy, excludes those who do not fit into the dominant discourse (2006: 2).

According to the authors, instead of focusing on an equalizing analysis and discussion of/between different rhetorical modes, Composition Studies still seems to function under the pretense that Western discourse is in some ways superior to other cultural discourses. This guiding pretense comes, Binkley and Smith argue, from the “origin narrative” of rhetoric and composition, Athenian rhetoric, which was in itself politically, socially and culturally prejudiced, as only a small group of citizens met the requirements necessary for their voices to be heard and valued (2006: 4), and also failed to recognize the existence of previous rhetorical modes such as those of the Sophists and of civilizations like China and Egypt – dubbed as pre/proto-rhetorical (2006: 3). The suspicion with which those who did not fit into the political, social and rhetorical requisites of the Athenian agora were regarded has been redirected nowadays, according to the authors, towards every type of cultural discourse that presents alternatives to the dominant framework (2006: 3).

However, the problem does not seem to be the predominance of Western discourse so much as it is its unproblematic and unquestioned acceptance by the academic community, that tends to regard rhetoric as a natural, static concept instead of seeing it as a social construct and, therefore, “a flawed and partial world view” that is permeable to social and political change and must, then, be examined within and across a specific time and place (2006: 4). This becomes even more complicated when we put it in the context of higher education, as students are forced into an either/or paradigm where they must conform to the dominant discourse or be barred from further education (2006: 4), a paradigm that is never explicitly acknowledged but is implicit in the pedagogical approaches to composition taken by most American university professors.

Appropriating Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, Binkley and Smith see Composition Studies as an extension of Greek rhetoric and politics, a “dual illusion” of democracy that “masks the Eurocentric, alphabetic dependent, gendered, and ethnocentric basis of its formation” (2006: 5). Although the authors explain in some detail what a heterotopia can be and make a good case for the underlying problems of Composition Studies, I was not entirely convinced with their appropriation of the term, as they seem to convey a negativity that is not present in the original concept. Foucault’s heterotopia is essentially a place of difference – another place, a “counterspace,” – not a place of bad difference or attempt to mask difference. In fact, according to his explanation in “Of Other Spaces” (1986), a heterotopia functions as a sort of a mirror that reflects and inverts reality, thus allowing us to perceive it more critically. The concept of heterotopia is complex and rather messy, but it allows for all sorts of variations, which can be positive or negative, isolating or interactional, and always different and fragmentary. If anything, I believe this uncomplicated and equalizing, yet deeply exclusionary visage of Composition Studies resembles more a utopian, or even dystopian, discourse than a heterotopia.

As it stands now, Composition Studies does not appear to be a suitable medium for the study of non-Western rhetorical practices, as it remains a “regional-spatial interpretation of knowledge” that does not seem to acknowledge and is, therefore, not applicable to spaces outside this specific discourse. Not only is there no acknowledgement of their unique discourse, there seems to be also no acknowledgement of their existence, as these other spaces often stay on the margin of the main discourse, and lack the means to promote their own discussions and participate outside their own rhetorical sphere (2006: 5). Adding to the classical rhetorical tradition is what the authors call an implied ethical superiority of alphabetic cultures and the monolingualism of American composition, which further promote the exclusion of non-conforming discourses (2006: 6). In face of this situation, how can we go about integrating these different spaces/rhetorics within Western discourse (is it even desirable)? How can we change Composition Studies so that it really becomes the democratic system it appears to be? Can these other rhetorical spaces be the heterotopias Binkley and Smith were talking about?

Through the Postcolonial Glass and What Bronwyn Found There

In his essay, Bronwyn T. Williams examines his experience teaching in a multicultural class and the problems in dealing with the diversity of social, cultural and rhetorical practices. He attributes the difficulty of reconciling different ideologies and practices to the predominance of a postcolonial mentality, equating himself, the professor and symbol of authority, with the oppressive force of Western tradition, and the students with the colonial minorities who must adopt and adapt to the dominant framework, often losing their authorial voices and consequently undermining the agency, authenticity and comprehensibility of their texts (595). Later on, Williams refers to these students/colonial subjects as treading “hybrid spaces,” places where the colonial Other can develop his/her own cultural-rhetorical voice without having to be subjugated to the dominant discourse of the West (604).

An individual’s discourse is largely shaped by the culture they are born into and the cultures with which they come into contact throughout their lives. For this reason, it is impossible to speak of identity without a study of the way they perceive and express themselves, their culture and the cultures around them. The problem seems to be, however, that ideological assumptions of superiority tend to establish comparative power relationships where one group is always better than the other and its identity worthier of preservation and dissemination. Williams represents this conflict very well by inserting it into the academic environment, one which tends to become more and more diverse, as educational and economic endeavors allow students from all over the world to gather together in the same classroom with the same purpose: to learn. But even here one sees the beginning of the cultural conflict. Does learning have the same meaning in every culture? Is it performed in the same way? Hardly. And when faced with a multiplicity of unfulfilled expectations – the professor’s, who will try to enforce the system he was schooled in, the one he knows best, and the students’, who are faced with completely new interpretations of concepts such as knowledge, discourse, rhetoric, ownership – communication tends to crumble under the limitations of each one’s differing realities (589). In this context, there is an attempt to assimilate – or indoctrinate, as Williams puts it (590) – the students, i.e. the cultural minority, into the dominant discourse, i.e. the Western cultural-rhetorical tradition (588). This often leads to either/both mimicry or/and resistance to the imposing rhetoric, that is an attempt to comply with the “new rules” of the discursive game that falls short of being an accurate imitation due to the permanence of, conscious or unconscious, signs of struggle to maintain one’s original framework of reference (591-592). Drawing on Bhabha’s work, Williams refers to these presences as “partial,” as they do not fit into the traditional mold and become, thus, a potentially subversive threat (592).

I found Williams’s pedagogic approach of having students draw from their personal experiences to write at the academic level rather interesting, as I expected that this would have a positive effect on the students’ rhetorical development. Much like the author, I believed, as I read the essay, that drawing from one’s own experience would make the students feel empowered as valuable cultural agents whose voices were being heard (592). But, like the author, I realized that I was being led down a rabbit hole by my own biased Western assumption that the writer’s personal background gives authority and credibility to his/her work, which is not the reality for every culture, as Chakrit and Neka’s examples show (593-594; 596). Having students write about their experiences actually seemed to do more harm than good, as they were being forced to conform to a rhetorical framework they were not familiar with and, for this reason, their texts portrayed none of the agency and authenticity Williams had aimed for (595). They became, therefore, “Others” on the margin of the dominant culture (603).

My perception was constrained by the ideological framework in which I was raised. I was wrong. But I was not alone, as Williams admits to taking an incorrect approach with his students and not being fully able to create the sort of educational and rhetorical environment needed to generate a fruitful discourse among different practices (599). Williams does not try to justify his mistake, nor does he apologize for it. Instead, he uses it as fuel for change, calling, not just for a deeper analysis and understanding of postcolonial minorities as hybrid and fluid constructs, whose identities and practices are shaped by their attempts to either/both appropriate or/and resist the dominant tradition of the West, but, above all, for a reconsideration of his own role, and every other professor’s role for that matter, as an educator and consequently a figure of power and authority (604-605). By emphasizing the need for self-interrogation and self-examination, Williams, it seems to me, is asking for a reassessment of Western discourse and ideology and their self-assumed superiority. Indeed, this essay seems to stress out the need for an equalizing discourse, a place for the discussion of difference that does not rely on the binaries of colonizer/colonized, superior/inferior, and instead attempts to engage and negotiate one’s place in the global discourse (605).

Williams ends his essay with an analysis of his students/colonial subjects as hybrid individuals whose identities are formed by the confluence of multiple cultural spaces, thus challenging discursive boundaries (603). As someone whose academic interests often veer into the Science Fiction genre, I am used to the term “hybridity” meaning a question about self-identification that is mostly left unanswered, individuals whose identity is frequently equated with fragmentation and isolation. In this case, however, the hybrid is pictured as both a question and an answer, a space where fragmentation and instability do not equal an identity crisis, but instead propel discussion and self-affirmation (604). In the context of Williams’s classroom experiment, hybridity appears to be a positive thing. And yet, it seems that there is still a void between the recognition of such hybridity and actually embracing its discourse as valid. A framework of thought that bridges the gap between the dominant tradition and the hybrid minorities has yet to be proposed. How can we go about doing this? Can these hybrid discourses ever truly flourish on their own terms, without outside manipulation of their concepts and ideas? Or should the majority adapt to accommodate these fluid rhetorics?

Movement Across Boundaries

In their essay, Levitt and Khagram attempt to give the reader a general perspective of how the field of Transnational Studies is organized. They begin by explaining the importance of analyzing social dynamics as cross-cultural, cross-borders phenomena (2007: 2) and then go on to describe the several different approaches pursued by the scholars within Transnationalism. For each one of these approaches, or foundational pillars, the authors give examples to better illustrate their specificities.

Levitt and Khagram begin the essay with the following sentence: “Social life crosses, transcends and sometimes transforms borders and boundaries in many different ways” (2007: 1). Indeed, not just social, but also political, economic and religious dynamics, to name a few, have been increasingly breaking physical boundaries, reaching far outside national spheres of influence and involving seemingly disparate groups and identities. The authors mention the events of 9/11 as a complex example of this phenomenon, as it simultaneously involved transnationally-acting institutions and reasserted the prevalence of the nation-state and nationalist discourses (2007: 1). Similarly, Hesford points out the danger of what she calls a reification of “nationalist fantasies of self-reliance and unifying notions of citizenship” that lead to cultural homogeneity and monolingualism (2006: 789). Transnationalism seems to reject this sort of national supremacy and attempts to open up a dialog between and across nations.

However, in order to fully understand Transnationalism, I believe it is important to know what exactly “transnational” means, as opposed to “international,” “supranational,” or even “multinational.” For, whereas the latter concepts all involve nations/countries as physical spaces with borders that separate them from each other, “transnational” points towards contact between and across the physical boundaries, thus focusing on the nation/nation-state not as the preferred paradigm of social and political organization, but as a construct which changes with these trans-border relationships (Levitt & Khagram 2007: 7). It is important to note that Transnationalism goes beyond matters of nationality and geographical location, to study the development and effects of non-territorial or trans-territorial subjects such as religion, economy, justice and human rights (Levitt & Khagram 2007: 5). The world appears, then, in a transnational perspective, as an intricate tapestry, where the national, historical, religious, political, economic, cultural, intersect and intertwine, the boundaries merging and eventually disappearing (Levitt & Khagram 2007: 8). Another important distinction, made clear by the authors, is that between Transnationalism and Globalization, the latter implying homogenization and constraint to move beyond the predominant systems of social organization, while the former appears to question those constraints and allow for the permanence of local individuality (2007: 6).

Levitt and Khagram then provide a description of the several branches of Transnationalism, explaining how each contributes to the whole. Interestingly, much like its study subject, Transnationalism seems like an interweaving of different paths – Empirical, Methodological, Theoretical, Philosophical and Public – that merge into one complete and complex field of research, that joins spatiotemporal analysis, procedural strategies, theoretical approaches, ontological and epistemological discussions, and practical solutions for dealing with current situations. Transnationalism aims, then, at developing viable policies for real-world use, thus emphasizing the need for agency and action (2007: 18-20).

One of the aspects that interested me the most in this essay was the way Transnationalism appears to question, challenge and reshape concepts such as citizenship and national identity (2007: 7), often taken for granted, as the authors say. They are indeed organic constructs that change in relation to the inter/transnational conjuncture, but also as a reaction to inner, that is national, transformations. Transnationalism seems to stress the importance of such a change, calling into question the validity of nation-state systems as organizational structures and, I would venture to add, as identity markers, for they eventually become, to use Hesford’s expression, “imagined geographies,” mental borders that may not match the physical ones (Hesford 2006: 790).  As a consequence, power dynamics become more fluid, as they are no longer limited to the national borders (Levitt & Khagram 2007: 15), and spatiality can no longer be seen as an essential trait of one’s sense of self, rather as the place where different identities converse (Hesford 2006: 790). On the other hand, one should also consider the implications of such a power shift, as it may determine the loss of the nations’ authority and possibly undermine their sense of national selves, as the “personalized life-spaces” lose ground to the “broader social processes” (Levitt & Khagram 2007: 6-7). The European Union is an example of a transnational institution that has gradually been gaining power over the countries it encompasses, holding exclusive competence on affairs such as commercial policy, customs union and international agreements.[1] How can nations respond to this new authority effectively? How can they maintain their own sense of authority and identity in relation to this transnational institution?

Levitt and Khagram make a very good argument for Transnational Studies. Indeed, there seems to be little doubt that we are living in a transnational world, where national borders appear to collapse under the weight of ever expanding and globally reaching policies and strategies. Therefore, there needs to be a careful study of social and political dynamics and of the way they influence national and international policies. However, we should keep in mind the implications that this transnational world may have on the nations as constitutive of collective and individual identities. Saskia Sassen mentions that nation-states become transformed by transnational relationships (Levitt & Khagram 2007: 15). But how much of that transformation is too much transformation? And under what circumstances? Levitt and Khagram do not seem to provide an answer for these questions. Although they defend Transnationalism as an all-encompassing field of research, it seems that transnational dynamics win over the national element in their essay. It seems to me that there is the need for what Hesford calls “intertextuality of local and global cultures” (2006: 792), a way to connect the national and the transnational in an organic exchange that does not impose one on the other. The question is: could it be done?

[1] See Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (2007):

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