zondag 25 januari 2015

Cartoons @ The Roots of Nationalism

Conference The Roots of Nationalism, 1600-1815
Radboud University Nijmegen, 22-23 January

[UPDATE 29-1: een Nederlandse versie staat op historici.nl]

There are essentially two positions with regard to the origins of nationalism. Modernists argue that nationalism was largely constructed after 1800 through the 'invention of tradition', 'imagined communities', national education, print culture and state propaganda, and/or as a side effect of the modernization process. Primordialists hold that post-1800 nationalism is not categorically different from pre-1800 patriotism, national sentiment, histories of the nation, and theories of national character. There are, of course, all kinds of nuances to these positions, but on the whole modernism is dominant in nationalism studies. The conference The Roots of Nationalism, on the other hand, organized by a research group for premodern Dutch identity formation, is essentially primordialists inc.

'Proud to be Dutch' is the somewhat provocative title of Lotte Jensen's research group, who have organized the conference. Of course they are not nationalists themselves - apart from a few creeps in Leiden no sensible Dutch historians are. But they do research on national pride in early modern Dutch travel accounts, poetical canon formation, pamphlets and songs related to wars and peace treaties, and Dutch resistance against the Napoleonic regime. This drawing is one I actually made later during the conference, while listening to a presentation on Dutch colonial activities in Ambon.

Joep Leerssen, main representative of 'modernism' in the Netherlands, has accused keynote speaker Caspar Hirschi of treating something (that is, early modern 'nationalism') like a duck because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck. Apparently, Lotte avers, Joep thinks it's a mouse.

[Joep is alluding here to the so-called 'duck test', a humorous formulation of what epistemologists call common sense philosophy. Stephen Toulmin gave a funny comment on that in a 2012 review:
A rule of thumb for sound inference has always been that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. But there’s a corollary: if it struts around the barnyard loudly protesting that it’s a duck, that it possesses the very essence of duckness, that it’s more authentically a duck than all those other orange-billed, web-footed, swimming fowl, then you’ve got a right to be suspicious: this duck may be a quack.]
Caspar Hirschi argues that nationalism, as 'a sense of national community' with geographical-linguistic boundaries and political repercussions has existed at least since the late middle ages. His starting point is the Council of Konstanz (1414-18), where deputies were speaking as representatives of their 'nationes'.

This shows, according to Hirschi, that the Imagined Communities which Benedict Anderson saw emerging in the 19th century already existed before that time. Here is a take on the emblem of the States of Holland, used on early modern government publications.

Caspar Hirschi is the author of The Origins of Nationalism (2012), a straight-out attack on what he identifies as the 'modernist paradigm'. It was hard to make a caricature of him because he doesn't have any particularly silly facial traits.

Heta Aali is doing research on how French historians portrayed Merovingian queens. To some extent, you could say that their portrayal becomes less 'historical'. In pre-revolutionary histories, they function as historical personalities, sometimes more so than the sources warrant. After 1789, they become stick-up figures for the evils of monarchy. (Cunegonde, in all probability, really was quite evil.)

Michael Wintle has written extensively on early modern maps. Not so much the cartography as the iconography: the way in which nations are portrayed, the emblems used to represent the countries and regions, the school atlases and jigsaw puzzles.

Quite a few myths surround the first Scottish kings. In 16th-century antiquarianism, these myths included Egypt origins, the coming of Brutus grandson of Aeneas, an Irish invasion under the first king Simon Brech, and the old norse god Wodan.  They all come together in a magnificently weird document Sara Trevisan found at the British Library, a 2x2 metre cross-shaped family table of all the ancestors of James IV.

Myths about Welsh origins could get equally outlandish, and Welsh antiquarians did not like it when you proved them wrong. What troubles Adam Coward's audience most is whether they actually believed that Brutus had sailed from Italy to bring civilization to the community already established there by Gomer grandson of Noah, the more so because they constructed that myth themselves. Adam's take is that they probably just 'liked the story'.

Ciaran McDonough's Irish antiquarians mainly kept themselves busy by editing text, with great industry and sometimes less proficiency. Late 18th century import Hibernophile Charles Vallancey, for instance, never had any formal instruction in Irish and basically 'decided that he knew Irish'.

Bart Verheijen is a PhD student in the Proud to be Dutch project who has unearthed scores of anti-French songs and poems from the latter period of the French occupation of Holland (1806-1813). Incidentally, he also stars in local rock band Jack and the Back Alley Bashers. To mix his hobby and his job, he is now making a recording of these songs.

Andrew Hadfield describes himself as a 'vanishing primordialist', one of the paltry few steeped in medieval and early modern studies who have not succumbed to the dominance of modernism. He spots a paradox: modernists have presented their position as eminently historicist, showing that the past was different and that things we take as natural actual had a moment in which they emerged or were constructed. The implication is that primordialism would be unhistorical. But precisely because of this stubborn conviction, Andrew argues, the modernist have themselves become unhistorical, treating everything before 1800 as 'something different' per se.

David Bell, in his keynote, looks back upon The Cult of the Nation in France (2001), in which he argued that modern nationalism was a French rather than a German invention and became a political agenda in the years after 1789. He now admits that there was a bit too much finalism in his work: in pointing out these origins he also assumed that they were the basis of all further developments in French nationalism, up to the present. That, he now thinks, presents the history of ideas as a 'high road to modernity'.

For the rest, he still stands by most of what he wrote back then.

Early modern Dutch nationalism, according to David de Boer, was not so much about language and soil as about protestantism. This meant, on the one hand, that Holland was portrayed as a haven of toleration, a Protestant nation in the Protestant commonwealth; but on the other hand, that rhetoric also included an image of Holland as God's own country, a new Israel.

You only realize how Dutch you are when you are abroad. This is a sentiment that Alan Moss already finds in 17th-century travel accounts and correspondence from jeunesse dorée on Grand Tour. Along with that go icebears, pirates, social chitchat, Roman prostitutes marked in secret codes, and non-verbal attempts to get something to eat by biting into your leg as if it were a ham.

Stefaan Marteel urges us to think of nationalism as historically contingent. Maybe it could also not have caught hold, and was not a necessary complement to the modernizing process. He borrows a metaphor from Hannah Arendt about 'the revolutionary tradition and its lost treasure' to argue that we should devote more attention to the actual content of (early) nationalist ideas and what made them appealing, rather than treating the whole phenomenon as an epidemy of the mind.

The back flap notes of Azar Gat's Nations (2012) state that a 'deep dissatisfaction' with how the history of nationalism is written today drove him to write the history of national configurations from the dawn of history to the present. Naturally, such broad strokes leave some of the listeners dissatisfied. If every nation was always 'nationalistic', one question goes, doesn't this rob the notion of nationalism of any meaningful content?

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