Let’s celebrate the national past, that’s what it’s there for

Joep Leerssen

A commemorative event on 26 July 2018 marks the fact that it it then exactly 437 years ago that the Estates General of the United Provinces foreswore the Spanish King Philip II as their lawful sovereign. The act of 1581 was indeed a great moment in the history of democracy and the run-up to the idea of popular sovereignty. The commemoration frames it, however, as a national-identitarian event. "The Netherlands commemorates the signing of the document", as the press header has it, and the day is insistently called "Independence Day" - under the emotive header "Is The Netherlands ready for its own Independence Day?", suggesting this could be an annual feast day. One historian places the initiative in the context of similar recent celebrations of Dutch national symbols. While the instigator admits that the initiative could be assocated with nationalism (and the tone of the newspaper coverage is a good illustration of that drift) he thinks its emphasis on an innate right to freedom would appeal to all ethnic communities in the country. In other words, it is an expression of “good” civic nationalism rather than “bad” ethnic nationalism – as if you can have one without the other.

Exactly 437 years ago. Clearly this speaks to the anxieties of, precisely, 2018.

Source: De Volkskrant, 25 July 2018.

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“Nice and Dutch” among the stars

Joep Leerssen

The Volkskrant reports (21 August 2019) that The Natherlands have the right to name a new exoplanet. The public have been asked to submit suggestions to a committee (oops, sorry, a “National Committee”, of course). Its president, Marieke Baan, is putting her hopes on a “nice, Dutch theme” for the name (een lekker Hollands thema), such as one of the Wadden islands or a painter (Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Bosch, Vermeer, etc). Banal nationalism takes to the stars — to infinity and beyond.

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Englishness adds value

Joep Leerssen

As The Indepedent and other news media reported on 17 August 2019, the UK’s Arts Minister Rebecca Pow has placed an export ban on the painting Ferdinand Lured By Ariel (1850) by the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais. The painting depicts a scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) recommended an export ban because of the detail of the natural life observed in the garden setting, and, more importantly, because the theme, the garden setting, and the artist were considered to be quintessentially English in character.
Pow called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood “a key part of British history and this is why we must keep this important work in the country.” RCEWA member Peter Barder called the painting “a summation of everything English. A novel interpretation of an episode from Shakespeare, it is set in a minutely observed English garden in the summer. [...] Such close observation was unique to the Pre-Raphaelites, one of the very few distinctively British art movements. An epitome of its type and of Englishness, I hope a British institution will find the means to keep it in this country”.
The comments pinpoint the conscious invocation of tradition (and that meant, almost by default, English tradition) by the Pre-Raphaelites; they also show how that programme of “Englishness” has meanwhile become a key factor in the assignment of value to their work; what is more, an Englishness that reponds to the Pre-Raphaelite nostalgic taste for Shakespeare, country gardens, and Victorian eye-candy aesthetics.

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Against Representativity

Joep Leerssen

As an imagologist I am often asked by my social-scientific or social-historical colleagues how I can determine the representativity of the literary material I study. If, in studying the English image of Italy, I draw on George Eliot and E.M. Foster, is that not a very restricted and rarefied data sample, almost a random stab in the dark? What wider conclusions could possibly be drawn from such a minute sample regarding ‘the’ image of Italy in England, or attitudes generally vis-à-vis Italy as current in England?

That ‘representativity’ challenge is irrelevant and pernicious, and should be rejected out of hand. It imposes on the humanities an entire set of assumptions and working methods that are alien and uncongenial to it, beginning with the idea  (too ingrained to be consciously reflected upon, let alone queried) that what we study are selected samples as proxy data for a larger whole – that larger whole being, ideally, society as such.
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