Last Friday and Saturday I participated in the first meeting of a new network of scholars interested in cultural diplomacy, organised by colleagues at the Universities of Bath and Swansea. The most exciting, and in many ways the most challenging, aspect of this meeting was its interdisciplinarity. After spending a week at the International Studies Association talking almost exclusively with colleagues working in public diplomacy from an international relations or international communications perspective, I was now discussing the subject with colleagues from area studies, cultural studies, linguistics and sociology. Needless to say we had some extremely interesting conversations which have helped me to understand better the cultural processes and products involved in cultural diplomacy. Not least was the challenge from some to define cultural diplomacy, and some arrived at the conclusion that definitions are not that important, and in fact can be restrictive. Also, where do cultural relations end, and cultural diplomacy begin?
In one of our breakout group meetings I raised the example of the current push in the UK to promote Shakespeare who, like Dickens at the start of the year, is now appearing like a rash across the Radio 4, BBC 2 and 3 schedules. I pose my questions here, but can offer no answers as these are 'thoughts in progress'. I would be delighted to see the opinions of those who read this blog.
The first question is about Shakespeare as a cultural diplomacy product. Why do we suppose that Shakespeare represents Britain (or, more specifically England), and who decides? Is this a particular view of British culture that only represents a part of the nation? For many of my neighbours on the working class council estate in Bradford where I grew up, Shakespeare does not represent their culture. So whose culture are we promoting, and why? Does this remain a class issue? Or educational? Or something else?
The second question arises from a colleague's response to these observations at Bath. Shakespeare is known throughout the world and is performed on a regular basis in foreign languages, with the drama localised for specific cultural settings. In other words, Shakespeare has been appropriated. What are the consequences of this for cultural diplomacy? Is there a point where the appropriation means dilution, and the original product becomes hidden, or even disappears altogether? Does it matter if some audiences watching a foreign language performance of Hamlet in some remote corner of the world have never heard of Shakespeare? If they cannot connect that performance to the UK, does it mean that Shakespeare has no cultural diplomacy relevance?
I will continue to ponder these questions, and I look forward to your comments.