From confusion to fusion: The birth of a new academic, peer-reviewed, online journal.
Author: Jane Mills.
When the Arts Dean at Charles Sturt University (CSU) proposed a merger of the School of Communication and the School of Visual and Performing Arts in 2009, the initial response was a confusion of voices for and against. The openly – often angrily – debated topics to emerge from this change management plan included the politics of naming, competition for student enrolment, intellectual integrity, (dis)location and identity. Underpinning many concerns was the issue of what is variously referred to as syncretism, hybridisation or cultural fusion. One of the creative outcomes of the friction was the proposal for a new, online academic journal entitled fusion. As support for this transdisciplinary initiative grew among academics at CSU in Australia, transnational support was proffered by the University of Lincoln in the UK.
This article briefly discusses the background to the founding of fusion and the thinking behind the journal and its name. The connected video interview between two of the journal’s founding editors discusses the value of cultural fusion for academics and their students and further suggests future directions that the concept of critical fusion might take. In keeping with the spirit and declared aims of the journal, in form and content this article includes both the written word and audio-visual content, it is co-produced by academics from Australia and Britain, and comes to you via a collaboration of emerging academics, early career researchers and experienced researchers.
How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? (Rushdie. 1988: 8)
“It is proposed that the School of Visual and Performing Arts in Wagga Wagga and the School of Communication in Bathurst will merge…”(CSU 2009).
These 23 words sparked one almighty discussion among academics, general staff, students, alumni and other stakeholders of these two schools at Charles Sturt University (CSU). ‘Discussion’ is a euphemism: ‘robust dialogue’ is closer to the mark but, to be brutally frank, it fails to capture the passions, tempers and, on occasion, raised voices of the months following the announcement of Arts Dean’s change management proposal in May 2009.
The rationale for the merger was based on the need to streamline and create areas of critical mass in CSU’s Arts Faculty following a Federal Government decision to replace the existing capped, university funding system for undergraduate student places with an uncapped, demand-driven funding system. While economies of scale and risk management undoubtedly played a part, other benefits were identified as:
greater opportunities for the facilitation of disciplinary interaction and research across campuses… more effective discipline-based course review and development… greater levels of collegiality, productivity, feelings of inclusion and security of employment… (Cahalan 2009)
There were certainly some who supported the merger but everyone was not initially convinced. The contrarians were more or less equally divided, with some opposing the change and others opposing the opposition. The doomsayers saw only the end: the end of all autonomy for their particular School, of their discipline and of access to funds – and thus no future for research and innovation. The cynics pointed out that the two most feared words in an academic’s vocabulary are ‘change’ and ‘management.’ There were also understandable and reasoned fears that the merger would pave the way for a dilution rather than a strengthening of existing and future fields of research and academic endeavour. Particular concerns to emerge related to the naming of the new school, competition for student enrolments, proximity to key industry partners, reputation and branding. All of which suggested the major underlying concern was one of identity.
Geography was a source of unease not simply because the two Schools were on campuses 215 km and a 4.5 hour drive apart but because location and identity are inextricably linked. Academic silos are seldom consciously endorsed but blurred boundaries are always unsettling (see Hannerz 1998). By suggesting new geographical as well as new cultural coordinates, the proposed change promised to dislocate notions of what it meant to be ‘in place’ and located or ‘grounded.’ As David Seamon points out, place, “as a multifaceted phenomenon incorporating and shaping the environmental fabric of taken-for-granted daily life … is an integral, inescapable constituent of human-being-in-the-world” (2011). From the burgeoning literature relating to place and identity, Seamon cites Jeff Malpas: “it is not merely human identity that is tied to place or locality, but the very possibility of being the sort of creature that can engage with a world…, that can think about that world, and that can find itself in the world” (Malpas, cited in Seamon 2011). Or, as Edward Relph explains, place is: “the foundation of being both human and non-human; experience, actions, and life itself begin and end with place” (2008, 36).
Amidst the sincerely-held fears for the future of innovation and collegiality, it seemed at one point at least possible that the debate might dwindle into unproductive competition, even enmity. Whatever their manifestation, most of the concerns pointed to a fear of identity loss underpinned by uncertainty concerning the possible outcomes of what is variously referred to as fusion, syncretism or hybridisation. Albeit in a totally different context, there was a confusion of initial worries and fears similar to those named by Salman Rushdie when discussing the violent reaction to his magic-realist novel, The Satanic Verses:
Those who oppose the novel most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world… The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love song to our mongrel selves (1992: 394).
fusion is born
With the notion of mongrelisation very much in mind, some academics at both Schools began to explore how the tensions and frictions might prove creative rather than destructive of collegiality and innovation. This thinking led to a successful seed grant application to research and design an online journal which, as indicated by the merged School’s eventual name – School of Communication and Creative Industries – enjoined the notion of ‘change-by-conjoining.’ The aim was to create a journal that “in form and content encourages a cross-campus, inter-disciplinary research culture” (Mills and Candusso 2010). Reflecting the strong professional profile of many of the School’s academics, the significance of such a journal, it was argued, would be in “the process of producing the journal as well as the journal itself” by encouraging collaborative research publication outputs from academics, early career researchers and postgraduates in the post-merger School. Another aim was to foster non-traditional publications in the form of creative practice and exegesis in which knowledge and understanding of professional practice commingled with academic knowledge and understanding (Schön 1983; Carr and Kemmis 1986). In short, the proposed journal reflected the need to put in place a strategy of practical experience and mentoring if the School’s research profile was to be enhanced by increased publication outputs.
But if inter- or trans-disciplinarity was formally embedded in the initial thinking, the transnational or global element was lacking and it was feared that the focus of the proposed journal might be unnecessarily limited to the local and the national. The question became this: how to create the necessary channels to encourage the multi-directional flows of ideas, people, technologies, finances and media through local, national and global borders in order to inform the journal and those produce and writing for it? In other words, how to incorporate the building blocks and porous borders of formations that Arjun Appadurai, in extending Benedict Anderson’s notion of ‘imagined communities’ (1991), likes “to call ‘imagined worlds’, that is, the multiple worlds which are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe” (1990: 33).
A solution came from the flows and cultural exchanges between CSU academics and colleagues at the University of Lincoln, UK and, in particular, from the enabling enthusiasm of Brian Winston who recognised that the two universities shared many of the same research aims and aspirations. The need for stronger, more, and more deeply analysed, fusion –specifically the notion of critical fusion as Winston rightly insists – was agreed by both experienced and early career researchers at the two universities who supported the idea of a journal that deliberately exploited the porosity of borders between the different campuses, schools, faculties, universities and nations. Since then, more border-blurring flows and fusions have started to make themselves felt with other universities (in particular, the University of New South Wales) and in the journal’s declared aim to challenge the widespread urban/rural binary by fostering critical awareness of the dialogic fusion between globalisation and regionalism.
The politics of nomenclature
Just as the new name for the merged school at CSU created what, at first, appeared to be a stumbling block, the naming of the journal also involved considerable debate. As the journal’s website announces, ‘fusion’ is defined as follows:
- The merging of different elements into a union.
- The blending of different elements to form a larger nucleus with the simultaneous release of energy.
- A combination of different ingredients and techniques from very different cultures or countries.
But why not one of the synonyms or close synonyms that Rushdie mentions: hybridity, impurity, intermingling, combination, conjoining, mongrelisation, melange, hotchpotch or ‘a bit of this and a bit of that’? There are other terms that Rushdie could have included such as mestizo, mestizaje, integration, interstitial, intercultural and syncretic. And, despite beginning to sound like a rapper, there are yet others not all of which, while tempting, were considered entirely suitable for an academic journal: cocktail, meld, synthesis, commingle, coalescence, emulsion, hodgepodge, jumble, medley, mishmash, patchwork, potpourri, pasta. (It is hard to avoid border-crossing culinary connections when ‘fusion’ is mentioned.)
Many of these terms are part of the discourses of post-coloniality, modernity, postmodernity, multiculturalism and globalisation, since they denote or connote notions of change, mobility, border-crossings and a meeting place for similarity and difference, self and other, and host and stranger and thus implicate race and ethnicity as well as the intercultural liminal identities of refugee, diasporic and exilic peoples (Naficy, 2001). Several of these terms also have their own sub-terms, each with a slightly different meaning. And, as Jan Nederveen Pieterse notes in his discussion of ‘globalization as hybridization’, each of these opens a different window on the current global mélange: “hybrid formations, constituted by the interpenetration of diverse logics manifest themselves in hybrid sites and spaces.” (1995: 52). Laura U. Marks suggests that the very number and variety of designations for more or less the same thing, points to ‘the continuing urgency of issues that the coining of a new term seems to resolve” (2000: 250). As Jane Mills point out, for the most part this urgency of issues which never quite disappears whatever the new or latest term, relates to fears, real and imagined, of an unresolved tension between heterogeneity and homogeneity, and thus to issues of identity and otherness (2009:140).
Hybridisation and syncretism
Of all the various terms relating to boundary-crossing and the ensuing conjoining, the most obvious and seemingly the closest to what was wanted for the journal was ‘hybridisation’, from the Latin hybrida, a variant of ibria, meaning ‘mongrel,’ specifically the ‘offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar.’ Pieterse usefully defines hybridisation as processes for
the ways in which forms become separated from existing practices and recombine with new forms in new practices… Hybridisation as a perspective belongs to the fluid end of relations between cultures: it’s the mixing of culture and not their separateness that is emphasized (1995: 62).
In a similar vein, Ien Ang’s argument that hybridity is a concept that helpfully confronts and problematizes boundaries rather than erases them, and belongs to the space of the frontier, the border, the contact zone and an unsettling of identities, certainly chimed with the aims for the journal (2004).
Ultimately, however, because the word ‘hybridisation’ is so closely linked to Homi Bhabha’s theory of cultural hybridity as outlined in The Location of Culture (1994) where he analyses it in terms of a paradigm of post-colonial anxiety, it was decided that this might unduly limit the range of topics in the articles the journal would be seeking to publish. In addition, having been used historically in discourses of race and language the word has acquired associations that have not always been positive, as the frequently abusive related terms ‘mongrel,’ and ‘half-caste’ indicate.
The close synomym ‘syncretic’, from the Greek word synkretismos meaning ‘union of Cretans’, that is, a united front of two opposing parties against a common foe, was also discussed as a possible title, not least because it carries a sense of ‘reconciliation.’ This is a hugely important idea in contemporary Aboriginal politics in Australia and for all those wishing to close the gaps in education, health and life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples (Lesley Russell and Sarah Wenham 2010). But it was felt that this, too, might appear to limit the scope of the journal since the term ‘syncretic’ is closely associated with religion, philosophy and language.
‘Fusion’ emerged as the favourite title largely because of its association with non-specific forms of culture. At its simplest, cultural fusion is the energy released by the fusion of several different cultures in one single organization. As Erik Cohen explains, it is a process of deliberate creation of new cultural products from often incongruent elements of diverse origins (Cohen 2000). The process of fusion, he argues, gives the term several advantages over other bordering concepts because it is conceptually and empirically distinct. He continues:
Cultural fusion differs from assimilation because it does not presuppose a substitution of new for existing cultural elements. It differs from acculturation or diffusion in that it is not an extended, gradual process but a deliberate, abrupt one. It comes close to syncretism and hybridization but is distinguished from those concepts in that the separate identity of the constituent elements is preserved in fusion – it does not dissolve in a new, uniform whole or in an undifferentiated pastiche. Indeed, the aesthetic appeal of contemporary cultural fusions is often in the unresolved tension between these diverse incongruent elements (44).
Furthermore, cultural fusion carries connotations of dynamism, of a wide range of intercultural flows, and of unity all of which suggested ideas of utmost importance to an academic journal aiming to reap the intellectual benefits of sharing knowledge and ideas through a process of cultural exchange. If collision is implicit in a concept in which diversity and difference is rampant, this proved no deterrent to the founding editors: it is precisely the transformative outcomes of productive tensions and creative frictions that can be hoped for when borders are perceived as porous. In discussing the tensions between homogenisation and heterogenisation, for example, Appadurai, explains that the very disjunctures in global cultural flows that “precipitate various kinds of problems and frictions in different local situations” are also creative processes which produce new forms when global ideas and forces collide with idea and forces in local situations (1990: 32). Drawing from another field, that of education, in discussing the collision that many teachers fear when school students’ informally acquired knowledge enters the classroom, Edward Millard prefers to think in terms of a “transformative pedagogy of literacy fusion” as “children’s out-of-school interests can be fused with schooled literacy in classroom practice that pays attention to what happens when two textual worlds meet” (2003: 6).
In all, the term ‘fusion’ not only fitted the aspirations of the journal but opened up new ideas and provoked exciting collisions and creative frictions in preliminary discussions among the founding editors and all others involved in the early days of developing fusion. What it might mean for our academic research and teaching, for the interactions between experienced and less experienced academic colleagues, and also for our teaching and our students is addressed in the filmed interview:
Here, Jane Chapman of the University of Lincoln (UK) in conversation with Jane Mills, formerly of Charles Sturt University (Australia), explores the need to think critically about the concept of ‘fusion’ and to consider the implications of it not always having the same significance or value for our research as it does today.
Meanwhile, readers are enjoined to look at the websites listed below and enter into dialogue with the ideas to which the concept of ‘fusion’ can lead.
Fusion: dance, music, nation, race
A favourite location for cultural fusion is undoubtedly in the world of music dance. If you have not yet encountered the Chooky Dancers, members of the Yolngu nation from Elcho Island, a remote community in North East Arnhem Land, Australia, click here: http://thechookydancers.com/content/ For a direct infusion of their brand of cultural fusion also visit the 2012 Festival of Pacific Arts website at http://fopa.australiacouncil.gov.au/fopa_program/the-chooky-dancers/and click on the “Zorba the Greek” link. As this website states:
The Chooky Dancers dress in traditional cloth and body paint, and fuse traditional Aboriginal and contemporary forms of dance, comedy and clowning. The Chooky Dancers combine humour, skill, discipline, athleticism and dancing with their own traditional culture.
YINKA SHONIBARE MBE
Fusion: art, nation, media form, race, past, present
The Nigerian and English bi-cultural background of artist Yinka Shonibare infuses his art with ideas of authenticity, post-colonialism and identity. His own website is at http://www.yinkashonibarembe.com/home/ And there’s an informative interview at: http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/crossingborders/interview/yinka_interview.html
Fusion: music, nation, culture
Few of us can have missed hearing at least some form of fusion music – rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, country and western are all examples. More often than not, however, it refers to jazz fusion. It’s a matter of taste, to be sure, but here’s a link to US Jazz musician, trumpeter, bandleader, composer and (re)arranger Miles Davis : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miles_Davis
Fusion: fashion, Africa, Asia
‘Habesha’. meaning ‘to mix’ in the Ethiopian Language of Amharic, is the aesthetic fusion of Asian-inspired style and African-infused textiles. See: http://weddingnouveau.com/2010/07/fashion-nouveau-afrian-asian-fusion-couture/
Fusion: third stream, classical music, jazz music
In 1957, the US composer, conductor, horn player, author, historian, and jazz musician Gunther Schuller coined the term ‘Third Stream to describe a fusion of classical music and jazz.
Perhaps inevitably the genre has been criticised for diluting the power of each musical form. Schuller’s response to such criticism was this:
“What Third Stream is not”
It is not jazz with strings.
It is not jazz played on ‘classical’ instruments.
It is not classical music played by jazz players.
It is not inserting a bit of Ravel or Schoenberg between be-bop changes—nor the reverse.
It is not jazz in fugal form.
It is not a fugue played by jazz players.
It is not designed to do away with jazz or classical music; it is just another option amongst many for today’s creative musicians.
Fusions: gothic, steam, science fiction, genre, popular culture, literature, cinema, games, nation,
Those unfamiliar with this concept might like to start exploring Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) (see http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/howl/)
Also Zack Snyder’s fantasy animation Sucker Punch (2011) (see http://suckerpunchmovie.warnerbros.com/dvd/).
SATAY BEE HOON
Fusion: Malay, Chinese, nation, race, cuisine
Satay bee hoon is a dish of the cultural fusion between Malay and Chinese cuisines.
30g dried chillies (soaked till softened)
20g lemon grass
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons tamarind pulp
3 cups water
300g roasted peanuts (coarsely ground)
5 tablespoons sugar
salt to taste
200g rice vermicelli
40g cuttlefish (cut into strips)
40g bean curd puffs (cut into pieces)
40g water spinach (kang kong), cut into 4cm lengths
20g cockles (shelled)
A: Grind Ingredients A together. Heat 5 tablespoons oil in wok till hot. Stir-fry ground Ingredients A till fragrant. Mix tamarind pulp with water to make tamarind juice.
B: Combine ingredients B and A and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer till sauce is thickened and oil floats to the surface.
Stir in a little curry powder and hot water so that the sauce is not too thick. Set aside.
C: Soak rice vermicelli in water till softened. Drain. Blanch rice vermicelli, cuttlefish, bean curd and puffs and kang kong in boiling water. Remove and drain. Transfer rice vermicelli to serving dish. Pour hot peanut sauce over rice vermicelli. Garnish with cuttlefish, bean curd puffs, water spinach and shelled cockles. Serve.
Fusion: east, west, image, word, visual art, text
Baffled? Look for two well known characters, a boy and a girl whose first names both start with the letter “J” who “went up a hill to fetch a pail of water” in the English-language nursery rhyme. Xu Bing: http://ravenel.com/artwork.php?id=1959&lan=en
The above ideas, images and url links are places to prompt critical thinking and one or two in themselves constitute a critical engagement with the idea of fusion. As mentioned earlier, to explore what fusion might mean in a specifically academic context, this link below will take you to the interview with Jane Chapman
Jane Mills wishes to thank: Brian Winston, Damian Candusso, Craig Bremner and Jane Chapman for their collegial support and critical friendship; Emily Booker (University of New South Wales) for filming this interview; Michelle O’Connor (Charles Sturt University) for her research, editorial and editing skills as well as her friendship; former colleagues at Charles Sturt University; the hugely thoughtful and perceptive peer reviewers who, as experienced and early career researchers, embody the aims of this journal.
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Associate Professor Jane Mills is Deputy Director of the Journalism & Media Research Centre at The University of New South Wales, Australia. A founding editor of fusion, Jane’s research interests include cosmopolitan cinema and screen literacy learning. Her most recent book is Jedda (2012) published by Currency Press and the National Film & Sound Archive.