Models of Cross-Cultural Communication Between Loss of Identity and ‘Differentiated Integration’
Remarks for a "Multidimensional Identity"
By Dr. Boghos Levon Zekiyan
Professor of Armenian Language and Literature, University of Venice
I shall try to develop a preliminary reflection on one peculiar aspect of the ramification processes of current Global trends: dynamics that are normally at work in those cases of cross-cultural communication in which features of a typically Western origin are emulated and assimilated by cultures of a different origin. This means in other words to face some aspects of the problem of national cultures' relationship, not belonging to the Western world, to ideas, movements, social and economical developments which have Western roots. While trying to develop my reflections from a general viewpoint, in doing so I shall have in account as a special historic reference the meeting of the Armenians with European modernity.
I. Preliminary Remarks
a. Whatever our opinion of the recent debate on "post-modernity" may be, no one can ignore the fact that the question we are dealing with raises as such in the modern era and regards essentially modes and ways of how single and different national cultures have met modernity. There is an almost common conviction, in spite of differences of emphasis and interpretation, to place the origins of modern era in those profound transformations that took place in Europe in the 15th through 16th centuries touching a very wide range of traits of human life and thought.
b. The Renaissance-Reformation era, however, was only the starting-point of a long and highly polyvalent evolution that went on for many centuries; we even cannot say whether it has already disclosed all its potentialities.
No wonder that all those subsequent developments - such as Enlightenment, French Revolution, the social question, Fascist and Nazi experiences - have marked the idea of modernity with specific problems. Hence the necessity to carefully distinguish the different fields of human activity in whose relationship modernity comes into consideration. So it is not the same to speak of modernity in economics and society, in philosophy and thought, in art and literature.
II. A Basic Question
Let us now put the basic question: how "modernity" and its multifarious implications, essentially of Western origin, can be harmonized with alien cultures and national identities? The problem has been real, even though to different extent, within Europe itself between its Eastern and Western components, and even within the nations of strictly West European lineage for such trends which had their roots in the cultural context of another nation. We can formulate the core of the question as consisting essentially in the dialectics between identity and alterity, change and continuity, tradition and evolution. To mention only two emblematic cases, Turkey and Japan offered in the course of the 20th century two very different patterns of the so-called "westernizing" or "modernizing" process. As to the Armenians, they were among the first in a Middle Eastern context to face modernity. This happened in the very earlier ages of its raise and evolution when the Armenians had already lost their statehood, and some of their most important cultural centers were rather in various points of the large Armenian diaspora than in the traditional homeland.
III. A Pattern of Synthesis
a. First we should make the point that, as far as the Armenian experience is concerned, such an up to date sensitivity in accepting "alien" models, and especially those proposed by Western modernity, did not mean a slavish imitation of the same. We are often witness to a marriage, rather happy, between Western forms, patterns, technique, poetics, theories, and an exquisitely Armenian sensitivity. Hence their attitude resulted to be both receptive and critical at the same time. They could, for instance, secularize without rejecting religion in their social identity, they could pursue women's emancipation without trying to reject, on a theoretical basis, femininity and motherhood. Such a critical openness allowed them to be, at the turn of the 19th century, even ahead, in some respect, of some European countries as to the contact with leading realities in Europe. Thus, for instance, the echoes of French symbolism were perceived in Armenian literary circles earlier than at some corners of Europe. Another resounding case: Marinetti's futurist Manifesto was published in Armenian only some months after its apparition in Paris in 1910.
b. The problems put to the Armenian self-consciousness by its close contact with the Western culture often implied, apart from the more general question of the dialectics between change and continuity, also a more peculiar question linked directly with a special feature of Armenian history: their emigration throughout the world. This feature, once peculiar of some nations, has become in our days a worldwide phenomenon. Hence its general and topic interest.
Armenian culture, art, and forms of life have developed along centuries not only in the Armenian homeland, but also, and sometimes prevailingly, on foreign soils. Those Armenians dispersed all over the world succeeded in developing a high standard culture, marked by a clear national character. This they were able to do in virtue of a singular understanding of their national identity and of its relationship with the surrounding and dominating cultures. We can define this self-consciousness, from an anthropological-philosophical viewpoint, as a "multidimensional identity", and its relationship to environment as a "differentiated integration". The king of the Armenian troubadour tradition Sayath-Nova, and one of the latter's most talented admirers in our times, Sergueï Parajanov, the famous film-director, can be regarded among the chief models of this multidimensional, "cosmopolitan" trend of the Armenian culture in a happy synthesis of both native traditional, and assimilated traits.
c. Notwithstanding these high achievements, Armenians did not in one point understand the West at all. No more did so, no doubt, other Oriental subjugated Christian peoples lacking a state structure and ideology. I mean their strong hope, deprived of any objective basis, that the so-called "Christian" Europe would save them, or would, at least, not allow them to perish. The first ideological Genocide of the 20th century of which the Armenians became victims, in the Ottoman Empire, was on both sides, of both the perpetrators and the victims, one of the most awful results of espoused or dreamed modernity.
Such misunderstandings are certainly, even nowadays, a much more common feature in cross-cultural meeting than we normally think. In particular peoples fighting for freedom and self-determination, and looking to the West as a model of freedom and achieved democracy, are very often victims of utopian hopes, since they are even unable to realize the distance, within the tradition of Western political thought and praxis, between theories, principles, and their concrete application in real life.
I tried in this brief survey to propose some preliminary remarks and to touch upon some basic questions concerning cross-cultural communication or, in equivalent terms, the ramification processes of global trends. The subject is extremely wide, complex, and complicated indeed. The main point, however, I would like to make as a conclusion is the following: such trends may be enriching when cross-cultural meeting enables groups, peoples, nations, religions, civilizations to be engaged in an open and constructive exchange and dialogue. This is a basic condition to avoid real risks to lose one's own identity, even if we understand this term, as we must do, not as a static, mummified, but as a very vital and dynamic issue. To reach this aim, instruction and awareness are utmost important factors: instruction how to approach the partner, how to perceive its own perception of values and its own sensitiveness for those values according to the varying contexts and circumstances; awareness of ambiguities, misleading, and misunderstandings that can lead towards new forms of subjection and slavery under the auspices and a deceiving appearance of dialogue and democracy.
Dr. Boghos Levon Zekiyan was born in Istanbul on October 21, 1943. He joined the seminary of the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist Brotherhood in Venice in 1955, and received his higher education in Rome at the Pontifical Gregoriana University, earning a Master's degree in Philosophy in 1962 and a Master's degree in Theology four years later. Dr. Zekiyan specialized in Oriental Christian Spirituality in 1968, and in 1973 he obtained his Ph.D. degree with a dissertation on the principle of inwardness in St. Augustine's theory of knowledge.
In 1974 Dr. Zekiyan moved to Venice as Assistant Editor of Bazmavep, the publishing organ of the Armenian Mekhitarist Academy. He was its Editor-in-Chief from 1980 through 1985. Additionally, in 1976 he was invited by the University of Venice to inaugurate the post of Chair of Armenian Studies, which he still holds today. That same year, in Milan he joined the Center for the Study of Armenian Culture, which promoted remarkable research on Armenian art, as it was then one of the rare private partners of the central Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. In 1988 Dr. Zekiyan was appointed Professor of Armenian Church Institutions at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. From 1988 through 1992 he held annual lectures as a Visiting Professor at the American Armenian International College of the University of La Verne in California.
Since 1978 Professor Zekiyan has animated some of the major activities in Armenian Culture in Italy, such as the first Festival of Armenian Cinema in Italy in 1983, the series of conferences entitled Armenians in Italian Culture, the 5th International Symposium on Armenian Art in 1988, the exhibition 'The Armenians in Italy' in 1990, and since 1986, the Summer Intensive Course on Armenian Language and Culture. In 1982 Dr. Zekiyan joined the Committee Board of the newly founded Association International des Etudes Armeniennes. He is President of the special Armenian Studies 2004 Committee for the celebration of the 16th centenary of the Armenian alphabet. He was one of the founders of the Association Padus-Aries in 1987, and of the Association Italiarmenia in 1991.
Dr. Zekiyan is the author of 11 monographs and over 100 scholarly articles in six languages. He also directed the first audiovisual course on the Armenian language. Dr. Evian's scholarly interests mainly concern Armenian studies in different dimensions, such as literature and philology, Church history, and Armenian thought and identity, as well as philosophical and theological issues, such as the problem of consciousness, the philosophical idea of humanism, the question of value, and the attempt at a theology of ethnicity.
A brilliant orator, Dr. Zekiyan speaks eight and can understand twelve languages. He has given almost three hundred lectures and has presented more than fifty scholarly papers at international conferences in different countries of the world. In 1992 Dr. Zekiyan was named a corresponding member of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, and in 1994 he was accepted as a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia.
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