Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Scottish and Flemish Culture: "Minority" Cultures? by Joris Duytschaever


Let me take my cue from a recent article on "The Othering of Cultural Studies" by Peter Hitchcock, who warns against the compulsion to define:

"Thus, we should note the tendency in current debates over cultural studies, and one that is purely defensive, to attempt to define what cultural studies is. It is a false question, like Sartre's 'What is literature?', because it assumes prescriptive categories of identity, the certitude of presence. Cultural studies is not about the being of disciplinary but the boundaries of the disciplines as they now come to mean..(...) This notion is somehow being between or among the disciplines without being reducible to any or all of them is not just a theoretical move of admirable abstraction but a political imperative. (...) The promise and the threat of cultural studies describe its non-being; its status, if one can call it that, is always already under the mark of studies." (1)

Hitchcock then goes on to explore such concepts as Othering (or exotopy) and hybridization with a  view to showing how the problematic identity of cultural studies is imprecated in the way it conceptualizes cultural exchange, and while I would like to refrain from indulging too much in intensively fashionable concepts, still it seems to me that the cultural studies approach is more productive when dealing with phenomena such as the emerging new Europe and its permanent crisis than traditional art history and literary history.

The most formidable challenge facing the project "Culture, Building Stone for Europe 2002" is to develop a mutually illuminating relationship with the cultures of Islam, thus getting us out of the poisoning orbit of the aggressive, confrontational policy promoted by powerful lobbies. As the Indologist Frits Staal (Berkeley) keeps pointing out, Islam belongs to the West together with the other proselytising religions (Judaism and Christendom), while religions of the Far East (such as Hinduism) are not interested in conversion. The stereotyping of Islam as a backward type of religion, incompatible with our European intellectual standards, should be rejected as futile, since the appeal of Islam has managed to lure away from Christianity such "renegades" as the philosopher Roger Garaudy, the marine biologist Jacques Cousteau, the ballet master Maurice Bιjart, and the German ambassador in Morocco, Wilfried Hofmann, a high-powered intellectual and prolific writer of books such as Der Islam als Alternative (Muenchen: Bavaria & Handel, 1992) which met with irrational hostility in Germany, as if there never was a German emperor in the Middle Ages who settled down in Palermo, converted to Islam, and contributed to German poetry to boot. It's high time to restore the heritage of Islam to its rightful place in European cultural history, as Roger Arnaldθs argued in the volume Ranimer l'Europe, and to tap it as a potential source of inspiration.

In case you are wondering by now what this has to do with my announced topic, one factor contributing to my growing interest in Scottish culture after having been an ardent Ireland fan for several decades was my perception of the enlightened way the Scots have been accommodating migrants from the world of Islam, mainly Pakistanes. I have been sending letters to the editors of Flemish newspapers so as to straighten out misunderstandings causes by titles such as "Ethnic Relations fragile in the UK", lumping together all parts of Great Britain, whereas the Far Right and the Racists thrive only in England, not in Scotland. I'm sorry to say that our only leftist newspaper did not publish my letter pointing out that the Scottish National Party has an impeccable record and is situated somewhat left of centre, and in some respects even left of Labour. Our leading catholic paper did publish my letter, but left out a passage criticizing populist self-styled leaders of the Flemish movement who sometimes get pride of place in that paper to salivate on the state of the universe from their narrow-minded perspective.

Ironically enough some of those rabble-rousers, who are close to the Flemish Block ideology with its program of ethnic cleansing while disclaiming affiliation with any party, conspicuously show an inadequate command of the Dutch language. Yet they claim our language and our culture is threatened with extinction as if we were not Flemish but Tuareg, for example, and without realising that they should make up deficiencies in their command of the mother tongue before blaming others for undermining it by the use of English or French. The intellectual dishonesty is plain when from an article by the linguist Uhlenbeck only the point is taken that languages can die, without mentioning that according to Uhlenbeck the Dutch language is "safe". This does not imply that the inflationary use of English in the media etc. is to be encouraged, but at least there is no reason to build up anxiety out of proportion.

It's only a small consolation that in the Francophone community of Belgium the same alarmist attitude vis-a-vis the imperialism of English has reached irrational proportions, for example in the recent statement:

"L'internationalisation de la societe sous l'influence d'un modele dominant mene ou l'erosion du patrimoine linguistique de chacune des nations du continent europeen, et en particulier du francais. Celui-ci est particulierement permeable aux apports venus d'outre-Atlantique..."

(Francitι, N° 7, Mars-Mai 1994, p.1)

There is no linguistic reason why French should be more vulnerable to "corruption" by English than other languages, and historically speaking French has always been among the Romance languages the one most permeated with Germanic influences anyway, so the idea of maintaining an imaginary purity sounds particularly "dιraisonnable"...

However, when I said that this consolation of shared short-sightedness is only relative, I meant that on the Flemish side this attitude is connected with a whole cluster of fallacious ideas about threatened identity peddled by the same intellectual terrorists: they have also been opposed to the ERASMUS Program, for example, thus trying to stymie the widening of our students' horizon and to keep them in the confining family atmosphere until graduation. Fortunately the ERASMUS Program has nonetheless proven overwhelmingly successful, and for the generation that will have to take over from us soon those formative periods spent abroad will surely have contributed to a genuinely European identity, a complex identity, not to be confused with the "grey cosmopolitanism" that Hitler and Stalin and the New Right stigmatized, but rather a sense of "rooted cosmopolitanism". The utopian impulse of the ERASMUS Program should inspire this generation with confidence, for initially there was considerable insecurity involved as our local laws were not yet ready for the exchange agreements in terms of mutual recognition of credits and diplomas. Yet Europe decided to go ahead, and "brϋler les ιtapes" turned out to be more productive than bureaucratic procedure. It was a concrete lesson in "negative capability", in dealing aggressively with incertitude (if I may apply this concept from Romantic poetics to cultural and educational politics).

Even if we have beaten the counterproductive alliance in this respect, still the situation remains worrying enough. Pervasive anti-democratic feelings and seething xenophobia converge into a seductive rhetoric which has a great appeal for those who are less educated than our students. In addition to blaming migrants, Eurocrats and Americans, populist leaders also capitalise on the remnants of the Belgian state as a burden for Flanders, a nation which could become much stronger if only it became completely independent. From this separatist point of view whatever has been accomplished in the framework of the newly federalized Flanders is treated negatively, particularly our alleged ridiculous status as "the best protected minority in Europe", whereas in reality the Flemish are the majority and outnumber the Walloons, the Francophone Bruxellois, and the tiny minority of German-speaking fellow-citizens. The only way to remedy this narcissistic injury for hard-core Flemish nationalists is independence, breaking away from the category of "stateless nations" that we have been subsumed under ever since Belgium was founded in 1830.

However, even if we became a state in our own right, we would still remain a minority in cultural terms vis-ΰ-vis the neighbouring Netherlands from which are divided by a common language (to take my cue from Pound), the Dutch language, spoken by about 20 million people, among them only 6 million Flemings. The chapter "Een creatief Vlaanderen" (A Creative Flanders) in the  brochure Vlaanderen-Europa 2002 of the Flemish government mentions this situation in passing as "ambiguous". There are indeed unresolved ambiguities involved in the relationship between those two regions of "The Low Countries", or are they maybe one region? This choice depends on one's "philosophy of regionalism". The editors of the prestigious new yearbook The Low Countries have opted for the "one cultural region" approach, as I noticed when my use of the term "supra regional clarity" in connection with the Dutch language standard aimed at by the Flemish writer Elsschot had been emendated to "regional clarity" in the printed text. From the alternative point of view, attempts were made in the Netherlands to raise their cultural visibility abroad through a "Holland Promotion" campaign, and the approach fostered by the Flemish government now seems to imply that differentiation is in order, and that Flanders is entitled to its own cultural profile and identity, while concurrently recognising that Holland is our obvious preferential partner. An approach which the Germans would call "Sowohl....als auch", and which may turn out to be very sensible.

Ever since the separation of the Low Countries which were ruled by Spain and Austria before 1581, the two cultures had become more and more alienated, with a Protestant majority north and an even more compact catholic majority south, a factor which interfered with our brief unification engineered by the Allied Powers after Waterloo 1815-30. Today this religious cleavage has become insignificant, yet the two areas are not prepared to merge into one cultural region, let alone into one state. The latter remains only the ideal of a very tiny "Pan-Netherlandish" minority, much the same way that only a small minority of Walloons would want to merge with France. And among the German-speaking fellow-citizens there is no desire at all to merge with Germany: paradoxically enough there are the ones who are most loyal to the kingdom of Belgium, so some people at least are perfectly happy as subjects of a stateless nation.

Let me try to put this into a broader context, including the case of Scottish culture as another potential preferential partner for Flanders. In a review essay "National calling unto nations" (TLS May 7, 1993) Oxford historian Norman Stone took issue with Daniel Moynihan's negative view of nationalism, whilst at the same time deploring that even in comfortable Western Europe absurd nationalist fusses are made, especially by the Flemish against the Walloons:

"In Brussels suburbs, the law now provides for the breaking of French-language television cables, and if you take the road to France, it is as well to bone up on Flemish names of French towns, because if you have not heard of 'Rijssel' you will miss the city that everyone in the world knows as 'Lille'. Nationalism of this kind now seems to be both contemptible and unstoppable: give it an inch, and it takes a mile.

Over our Scottish Question (Stone who is Scotsman himself, though not a militant one, proceeds J.D.), you can argue that British local government is a mess, and could be suitable reformed through regional governments - to include Scotland. Knowing something about the federal system in Germany, I have some sympathy here. However, there was a counter-argument of some force: that, once you set up a regional body in Edinburgh, it would just, by force of inertia and the operation of nationality-politics, end up with a separation, and innumerable stupidities of the Flemish kind." (p.17)

When I corresponded with Stone about this matter and also about the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia with which he is more familiar than with the Belgian situation, it transpired that he fondly reeled the days when he was commissioned to translate a history of the University of Louvain into English before the university was split into a Flemish and a Walloon division, and before the university library was divided between them in a completely irrational way, a fact also deplored by Erich Hobsbawm in a recent interview with the Dutch weekly De groene Amsterdammer as something perverse, and as an ominous foreboding of a new type of nationalism that Hobsbawm failed to foresee in his books and recognises now, from hindsight, as a type of "identity politics".

One doesn't need to agree with those two eminent scholars, and I for one don't even though I'm not a Flemish nationalist: after all the Walloons have been steering a collision course at least as aggressively. However, it's always better to clean one's own doorstep first. So Norman Stone's parallel about Scottish culture, whereas most of us are more or less familiar with Irish culture, at least in its Republican variant. There is of course the historical explanation that Flanders with the Catholic University of Louvain and the former French Flanders area with the city of Douai were very hospitable to Irish Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries, witness the bowdlerized Douai Bible etc., whereas the Calvinist Scots moved to the opposite side of the religious spectrum and became closer to the Dutch. Hence the splendid exhibition Scotland and Holland. Reflections of Taste, shown in Edinburgh in 1992, did not include any painting from or reference to Flanders, even though the Flemish were the first migrant workers in Scotland in the Middle Ages, when Flemish weavers were given small villages by Scottish landowners annoyed by the quality of local cloth (and no other lasting influx of settlers came to Scotland before the 19th century). There were artistic ties as well, e.g. in the mid-15th century James IInd's Flemish wife founded the first music school in Edinburgh, a fact commemorated in a painting by Hugo Van der Goes. These early connections have completely vanished from our collective consciousness, and Scottishness became the epitome of dour aridity with stereotypes such as stinginess attached - the same stereotype many Flemings like to inflict on the Dutch as well.

From fieldwork in contemporary Scotland one can learn fast that the Scots are not stingy at all, much though they appreciate good value for their money, that they are enjoying a cultural renaissance which connoisseurs such as Steven Berkoff prefer to what the London scene has to offer, and that their brand of nationalism is perhaps the most sensible one in Europe today. Reasons enough for me to explore the origins of this innocent kind of nationalism, as an antidote against the Flemish proneness to idealize more "radical" types of nationalism such as the Irish one: instead of narcissistic identification, cultural exchange should aim at "adequate Othering" (if I may pun on the concept of "adequate mothering" borrowed from feminist studies).

When exploring the roots of Scottish nationalism, one is struck by the fact that even the most prestigious recent books on nationalism such as Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities or Hobsbawm's works fail to mention the fact that the Bannockburn victory of 1314 made Scotland the first European nation state, and that the Declaration of Arbroath sent to the Pope in 1320 was the first nationalist manifesto, and a very modern one to boot: it did not only assert Scottish independence, but also the determination to depose the king if he turned bad. This document was not "invented" in the 19th century, there is a reliable facsimile for sale at the Register's Office in Edinburgh, thus falsifying Hobsbawm's theory about the "invention of tradition".

Scotland was fully independent until the sixth James Stuart of Scotland was invited to take Queen Elizabeth's place in 1603, and even the loss of the Scottish Parliament in 1707 did not really damage the distinct Scottish cultural identity, which was safe-guarded by privileges in the field of the Church, the Law, and Education. It's a strange irony of history that the oppressed Scots were able to maintain a higher level of education throughout the 19th century than England, and as an educator I like to believe that somehow this factor still plays a role in the tolerance that is such a remarkable quality of Scottish culture. After all Scotland was a fountainhead of the Enlightenment, and although it has become fashionable to blame the dark side of the Enlightenment for lots of things that went wrong in our modern world, including even nazism (as the Frankfurt School has done), one is equally justified in pointing out the positive side of the Enlightenment (e.g. the fact that the greatest philosophical impact on the abolition of slavery in America was exerted by the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson).

Concurrently there was of course the Romantic vision of  Scottishness, and sadly only this component influenced the Flemish movement, when Scott's novels fired the imagination of Henri Conscience to write in 1838 The Lion of Flanders, dealing with a Flemish Bannockburn of sorts, the Battle of the Golden Spurs of 1302, when the Flemish municipalities defeated the French feudal army without however securing for Flanders a lasting independence. Instead Flanders remained the battleground of Europe, and in the mid-1830s 3/4 of the Flemish people were illiterate. The Enlightenment had bypassed them, and some pioneers of the Flemish movement took their cue fatefully from German romanticism with its fad that the mother tongue is the people. For 160 years this idea dominated the Flemish movement, resulting in a fetishization of the mother tongue without realising that it is a construct, not something naturally given. This has also led to overcompensation in the struggle against the domination of the French language and of English now, an attitude that is absent in the more mature nationalism of the Scots who express themselves in English and also in Gaelic and Scots without idealising any of them as sources of unique mystical insights. It's also worth noting that traditional music rather than language was the main identify factor for the millions of Scots who emigrated all over the world.

While Flemings should of course appreciate the fact that their language has been almost miraculously saved, it was also a great relief for many of us to see how the Minister-president of the Flemish government himself started loosening up unnecessary rigidities early this year: in an interview he boldly affirmed that Jacques Brel would have qualified to become "Cultural Ambassador of Flanders", the same Brel who was so intensely disliked by Flemings not only because he was Francophone, but also because of the irony mingled in his affectionate treatment of "Flemishness" (particularly of its holy cow, the close-knit large family, in "Les Flamandes"). The motto "The language is the people", launched in 1834, has become superseded in 1994. Language is a vehicle of communication that should be treasured as such, not as a fetish.

Another interesting development along the same lines is the attention devoted to Flemish writers who wrote in French, such as Verhaeren, Maeterlinck, Eekhoud, etc. in the recently re-organized "Museum of Flemish Culture" at Antwerp, which 60 years ago when it was founded, excluded all of them, no matter how much they had contributed to our visibility abroad and no matter how perceptively they had helped us to understand our own culture. The most interesting book about the history of Antwerp is still Les libertins d'Anvers, published some 80 years ago by George Eekhoud, whose "ex libris" now fittingly adorns the latest flyer of the Flemish Museum, printed in the black and yellow colours of the Flemish flag. It looks like the Flemish fixation on language as the crucial prop of identity is giving way to a re-invigorating fluidity, a courage to re-define our identity in a process of change and exchange.

The Flemish are in a position now to undertake joint cultural ventures with other "minority" cultures embedded in a larger language area, such as Scottish culture, and to develop mutually illuminating insights into the mechanisms that could facilitate their getting into the mainstream of that larger area. Festivals of European Cultures, including Book Fairs, will be the most appropriate venues for such exchanges. While I was disappointed to see no Flemish visibility at all during the last two Edinburgh Festivals, this will be remedied in the future by personal initiatives taken under E.M. Forsters's motto "Only connect"...Academics are sometimes better qualified to mediate such linkages than so-called professionals wrapped up in glamorous and profit-oriented "impression management".

Therefore our Ministries of Culture would be well-advised to take more advantage of the international cultural know-how of academics, and to check and balance the growing "publish or perish" pressure from our Ministries of Education. Having cultural activists among teachers who will go out of their way to devote a fair amount of attention to "smaller cultures" will be the enabling condition to change the mental map of Europe for the next generation.




1. P. Hitchcock, "The Othering of Cultural Studies", Third Text 25 (Winter 1993-94), p. 11 - 20.





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