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.

But what may well be a self-evident working method for a sociologist is not necessarily the universal, exclusive path to knowledge for all other disciplines. Imagologists do not study ‘society’, and what they choose to analyse does not have to be quantitatively or statistically representative of larger, socially defined patterns. What imagologists study is a mode of discursive rhetoric, a repertoire of thematic and stylistic gestures and mimetic strategies. In choosing such authors (like Eliot, Foster) as come to our notice from the secondary literature, we rely upon the fact that their notability, their non-obscurity, correlates with a certain status and influence in the literary system and its conventions, and that this non-obscurity is therefore a reliable prima facie indicator of their qualitative representativity: their impact and operative presence beyond the ephemeral or trivial).  ‘Society’, like Planet Earth, is only the wider biotope in which the literary system functions, including its processes of articulating Self/Others. And these processes, as imagologists realize more keenly than sociologists, are highly variable over time, and with multiscalar varieties from local to regional to ‘national’  or macroregional framings. A certain passage in A Room With a View about tourists in Florence may at the same time bespeak an English-Italian opposition as a North/South-European one or even a European-American one. And Foster’s readership – of the audience viewing the film adaptation – is not encompassed within a single ‘society’. Hence imagologists ought to reject, and reject firmly, the ‘representativity’ trap.

Latest Blog Posts

Imagology handbook (Beller/Leerssen) now available in Open Access

Joep Leerssen

We are delighted to announce that the handbook edited by Manfred Beller and Joep Leerssen, Imagology: The Cultural Construction and Literary Representation of National Characters : a Critical Survey (Amsterdam/Leiden: Rodopi/Brill, 2007), has been made available for Open Access consultation on this website by kind permission from Brill Publishers in Leiden. The contents are posted here under Creative Commons license CC-BY-NC-ND, meaning that users can make free use of the posted articles, provided they give appropriate credit (source reference), refrain from using the material for commercial purposes, and do not distribute the material in modified or altered form.
For users’ convenience, the handbook’s many cross-references have been turned into clickable hyperlinks. The bibliographies are given as they were in the 2007 book; more recent material may be found in the website’s Bibliography section.
We invite you to check out the handbook contents under the Ethnotypology tab!

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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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