Michele Espagne coined the term “cultural transfer” in the 1980s, becoming one of the founders of the transnational approach. The focus of his research interests is primarily the history of translation and the circulation of knowledge between France and Germany in the 19th century. He currently leads one of the research laboratories at the École Normale Supérieure (Paris) and the National Centre for Social Research in France (CNRS).
Comparative studies as a juxtaposition and comparison of two objects developed actively in the 19th century, primarily in the natural sciences and then in linguistics. Comparative linguistics became the model comparative method for all of the social sciences and especially for anthropology, which aims to create a “grammar” of human behavior. Historically, the interest in comparative studies was clearly articulated only in the mid 20th century, despite the fact that even Herodotus practiced comparison. Proponents of the study of cultural transfers suggest replacing comparative studies as the search for differences and similarities with the study of forms of cultural mixing, interpenetration and hybridization.
Within the framework of cultural transfers, Espange offers to rethink the relationship between the center and the periphery, incoming and outgoing parties, and the relationship between influence and power. In his opinion, this is especially important for understanding the history of colonialism as a lengthy process of mutual influence rather than one-sided suppression. The terms used by researchers are not neutral. In asking how France influenced Vietnam, and England influenced Burma, we are already posing a rigid interpretive frame. In Espagne’s view, this influence is always a two-sided and creative process. Colonies influenced the metropolis, which exported food and clothing. And the material and spiritual culture of the colonizers inevitably changed under the influence of the local culture.
In the process of transfer and the migration from one cultural situation to another, any object falls into a new context and takes on a new meaning. Cultural exchange is not the circulation of objects and ideas as they already are, but their relentless reinterpretation, rethinking and re-signification. In studying languages, for example, it is clear that even universal words and terms have different connotations and meanings in different languages. The French word “bourgeoisie” takes on extra weight in German and even more so in Russian. Espagne suggest that it is important to study the contexts of outbound and incoming parties diachronically, as different contexts are updated in different eras. This process does not occur simultaneously in the cultural zones between which transfers occur. Thus, in the Middle Ages, religious and dynastic contexts were most important, while in the Early Modern Period the national dimension assumed a primary role.
One of the basic points in cultural transfers research and the transnational approach is a refrain from using the concepts of “nation” and “country.” Instead, Espagne proposes the use of “cultural zones,” stressing that this term is also conditional. When we refer to Franco-German transfers as exchanges between French and German culture, we understand that these do not exist in a purely homogenous form. Each cultural zone is also the result of the mixing of different cultural elements. Parts of each zone are more or less subject to the influence of transfers. For example, in the Russian Empire the Baltic territories were zones of penetration for German influence. Parisian salons were places where Enlightenment ideas and romanticism were created and spread throughout Europe.
19th century French salons are a good example of the “entangled histories” approach, which implies not a dual but rather plural and mutual interpenetration of cultures. Even if a researcher examines the relations between only two societies, he must take into account the multiple channels of communication between them, which echo and change each other. So, for example, in the study of German influences on the 19th century Russian Empire, it’s important to consider not only the German members of the Academy of Sciences, university exchanges and German specialists, but also the importance of German artists and architects in developing Russian culture.
In studying cultural transfers, it is important to identify enclaves of exchange and their agents. Besides the previously mentioned Baltic territories, the University of Göttingen was another important site from which German teachers entered Russia. Such enclaves and transference zones occupy an immeasurably greater place in the transnational history of two societies than in national history. The agents of these transfers are the people who contribute to the movement and dissemination of knowledge and objects from one cultural zone to another. They are translators, expats or people who circulate between countries, such as Russian aristocrats or scholars, who have received their education abroad.
Espagne believes that the most promising use for the concepts of cultural transfers is in combating the positivist notion of national entities and identities. According to him, the study of cultural transfers will help us to understand Europe as a heterogeneous but simultaneously a cultural space connected by numerous “bridges” of transfer.