Hopes and Memories
Interviewed by Journal d'Ambroisie, Editors in Chief
“Hope is not a very happy thing to be in. On the other hand, the absence of hope is even worse”
An Interview with Dr. Joep Leerssen
Journal d’Ambroisie: To start us off, it would be great to know a little bit more about why you decided to research nationalism and cultural history.
Dr. Joep Leerssen: I grew up in a borderline part of Europe in the triangle between Liege, Aachen, and Maastricht. An environment that was deeply characterised by the interaction of different cultural influences within a strong regional culture. Growing up, as I did, in the 60s, culture was very much defined as “national culture”. And if you were Dutch, that meant that culturally you were Dutch; and if you were German, it meant that culturally you were German, etc. I'm now projecting back, as I didn't have the theoretical frame or the words for it back then, but I did intuit that it was very wrong to assign people as groups to specific cultures. This type of modularity always bothered me, and now I also realise that this was at the root of nationalism. At the time, nationalism was politically not a very strong ideology, at least not where I was from. People were dedicated to the European integration project, to transnational organisations like NATO and the UN. But I did dislike the groupism, as we would now call it, the idea that humanity is naturally divided in groups and those define what your proclivities are. I especially felt this in the importance that people assigned to language because I was from a multilingual area. I also felt that culture was often defined anthropologically as something that you are. And so that determined what I was going to do. Originally, I wanted to research the history of languages and the history of thinking about languages; eventually, that became more a history of literature and a history of culture more generally.
Journal d’Ambroisie: In relation to the theme of this edition of the Journal, Hopes and Memories, could you give us your definition of what hopes and memories mean both to you and the field you’re researching?
Dr. Joep Leerssen: I find the theme a very interesting one, because it is what Nietzsche would call Unzeitgemäß [in English we most often translate this expression as untimely, unfashionable, out of season (see the different translations of Nietzsche’s Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen)]. Most of us now are dealing with trauma rather than hope, and memories are in a way a feeding ground for despondency and grievance. So just to encounter the “principle of hope”, is a little bit out of time and therefore it's extremely interesting.
Scholars who are dealing with hopeful memories can still inspire contemporary activists, despite the fact that very often the movements they research did not fully realise their aims, they still bequeathed the legacy of hope through the idea that political ideals do not disappear if they fail to be materialised. And that you might define as hope. It's not the same as optimism. Now, for me as a baby boomer, I grew up in a period of intense optimism. I was born 10 years after the war, Europe was pretty much a ruin, and certainly in the West of Europe, there was a sense that things were getting better now. There was technological progress, even domestically, healthcare was getting better and better, overall we felt that after the total devastation of two World Wars, there was a real sense of hope. Or better, of confidence. And that confidence reached its peak in 1989, and for me, and my generation, since 1989, world history has been one long disenchantment. I think for generations, the idea was that the bad times were in the past, and hope was the idea that good times could unfold in the future. That relationship is, I think, tilting now. I see healthcare in this country [in the Netherlands] getting less good despite the technological advances, I fear that my children will not get as good healthcare as I got. Politically and in terms of climate, there is more pessimism around. My best hope is, in fact, a return to the past. Now, that is a terrible thing to say, that hope should become almost a conservative instinct to recapture the internationalism and the belief in progress that we had, at least in Western Europe in the 60s and 70s. And that you don't change the world, but rather manage to prevent the terrible changes that are happening now climatologically, politically, and so on; hoping that you can stave off catastrophes. That's a very different kind of hope.
The rise of the new nationalism is also a cause of deep concern. When I studied the phenomenon in the 1970s, nationalism in Western Europe was dead, except for Northern Ireland and the Basque country. It was the Cold War, of course. There was something called regionalism, but that was “cute”. And after 1989, you suddenly saw in the vacuum of communism that nationalism completely went back to the situation of the 1920s and the 1930s. We just came out of the First World War, there was a League of Nations, things were going to get better. All these countries that had broken away from multi-ethnic empires and had got a Wilsonian self-determination of peoples had their freedom. We now primarily think of those countries as having been steamrolled by Molotov and Ribbentrop and by the Hitler-Stalin pact, but as a matter of fact, between 1921 and 1929/ 1930, they all abolished their own democracy. All of them installed authoritarian dictatorships – Horthy in Hungary, Metaxas in Greece, Piłsudski in Poland – everywhere you get the sorts of dictators whom we've forgotten because they were overpowered by Hitler. And that is what's happening again. And that's why I'm looking at Hungary and Poland with particular concern, because Horthy and Piłsudski are still fresh in the memory for a historian like me. While in the 1980s, early 1990s the ambition was the idea that nationalism could be filtered out of our system, that it could be one of the benighted things from the past that we had outgrown, there is now a full-on nationalist war going on on European soil. At the moment, nationalism is the most powerful ideology on planet Earth, from Modi's India to Trump's America, it's all over the place. My hope is that we can prevent rather than effect changes.
Journal d’Ambroisie:It makes me wonder, if nationalism is so prevalent right now, how does that relate to the “global youth” that we consider ourselves part of? What role does nationalism play in the younger generation’s attachment to a global community and our search for identity and belonging?
Dr. Joep Leerssen: I think that you're basically limiting your analysis if you root nationalism in the wish to belong to something, I don't think that is the root of nationalism. The root of nationalism is the rejection of others, the rejection of strangers. In that respect, if you want to look at the global situation of nationalism, the paradox is not in the fact that people are enmeshed, entangled globally and they want to belong to a recognizable cultural community, but the fact that they are entangled economically, whereas they reject cultural entanglements. So it's the Xenophobia and the economics that are the strange paradox.
Imagine a seesaw or a set of balancing scales. We always define our citizenship, our belonging to a society in terms of a nation state; this goes almost unquestioned, it's one of the most deeply ingrained political beliefs we have. But what precisely the importance is of the first part “nation” and the second part “state” is anybody's guess. And at the moment, what we see because of economic globalisation is a very pronounced weakening of the state. States are becoming totally powerless. As economists like Noreena Hertz have shown, large companies have a lot bigger budgets than small states. These large companies operate internationally and the state has completely dedicated itself all through the Western world (and even in some of the communist or post-communist countries) to a neoliberal agenda, which means deregulation. The idea is that a planned economy, as the communist were trying it, does not work, in order to thrive, you have to let investors and market forces do their thing and not overregulate. And this means that states bail out banks, they subsidise entrepreneurial capitalists with taxpayers' money, give tax breaks to foreign companies, and abdicate a lot of the responsibilities that they used to have through privatisation. I remember my father saying that back in the day he paid a lot of taxes, but he didn't mind because the state was maintaining a lot of public utilities with that money, so everybody was a stakeholder in the state. And as more and more public functions of the state are sold off, privatised, deregulated, the state is evaporating. And as a result of this, in our imagined seesaw, as one element (state) in the nation state goes down, the other (nation) goes up, and we get a symbolic heightening of the national element. So all these people who economically get less and less involvement with the state they live in, feel a stronger and stronger cultural, symbolic affinity with the nation that they belong to. I have a simple test for this. You look at any populist politician and you count the number of flags in the background when he gives a speech (it’s almost always a he). The more flags there are, the more that politician is dedicated to economic deregulation. So there is an absolute inverse proportionality between the strength of the state and the hamming up of national identity. And this is deliberately feeding disenfranchised or almost de-nationalised taxpayers by giving them the symbolism. That's why a lot of populists are now trying to seek their political participation and their empowerment in symbol politics. They really get fixated on the most ridiculous heraldic symbolism because it's “opium for the taxpayer”.
Journal d’Ambroisie:We often see a national, collective memory as part of or a tool for building this symbolism. Where does memory fit into the picture, and how would you define it?
Dr. Joep Leerssen: Memory has been beautifully defined by Juri Lotman – although he probably said it in Russian, so I wouldn't be able to reproduce it authentically – as everything that one generation transmits to the next, except through genetics. That, I would say, is a fairly important chunk of the continuity between generations. Memory is fundamental to our identity. I follow Paul Ricœur here in stating that who I am is based on two things. One is my uniqueness, the fact that I cannot be confused with anybody else. The other is that I maintain a continuity between theI,whoIamnow,theI,whoIwasatmomentsinthepast,andtheI,whoIplan to be in the future. The substance of what I am is my permanence through time. Therefore, you cannot get more central to identity than memory.
Even how we communicate is something that is transmitted by memory, most fundamentally of everything else, language. Language is beyond the nature-culture divide. It is something that we already begin to get hard-wired into our brains even as we hear sounds in our mother's womb. It's really, really fundamental to our synapses. Nothing will ever replace the importance of your native language, the language that you acquired before you were socialised. That is deeply transgenerational, as at that moment already, parents are passing on memories to their children. And this is the basis of a social contract that extends through the generations. So all our cultural memories, the stories we tell each other, are deeply bound up with our identity. And that goes also for the national community. The national community has monopolised almost all our collective identities. Every group that we belong to tells its stories, and these collective memories are massively important. What I find interesting as a historian is that these “collective memories” are narratives that you could tell in any way you like, since memory is something active, memory is recall, you reach into the past and you bring it back to the present. The interesting thing is that despite all this, collective national memories tend to be the totally ossified 19th century narratives that were made canonical by the romantic nationalists. And we still live with these narratives, which is, in a way, limiting. Of all the thousands of stories we could tell, we're restricting ourselves to 25 or 30, and all of them are about the same thing.
Journal d’Ambroisie: And do you think there's a way to create collective memory outside of nationalism?
Dr. Joep Leerssen: Nowadays, as groups are emancipating, the first thing they do is they always start writing down their history. In many cases, it's invented or embellished, but then again, the national histories are invented and embellished as well, so you can't blame them. People are always investigating the hidden silences of the past, rediscovering the memories that were oppressed or repressed. Personally, I think getting fixated on the past might be nice, but it's also a bit limiting and I would prefer if communities could derive their sense of belonging together from a sense of a shared future. Because with all this talk about memories, we never talk about the future, and that's what hope is about. One of the terrible side effects of 1989 was a loss of utopianism. Whatever you might say of communism, it was a utopian ideology that was very much future oriented. And at its fall, people started talking about an end of history. However, the terrible thing about “the end of history” was that it implies that we don't need a utopia anymore, there is nothing that we can work for to make things better. So the free market triumphs over communism, and the next thing you see is Blade Runner. All of this to say that maybe what we need is a new utopianism. Re-embracing the culture of little utopias that were dreamed up by people around the turn of the century, “silly things” like Esperanto, the language movement, or nudism; but also very sensible things like the women's right to vote and vegetarianism. Yes, sometimes those people were lunatics, but at the same time, I really like their idealism and their willingness to attempt the impossible. Maybe we could do with a bit of that again.
Journal d’Ambroisie: Do you have any suggestions on how we can start thinking of our utopias in small ways?
Dr. Joep Leerssen: Well, I think there is a fantastically interesting potential in a future agenda of de-growth. Let’s start with something approachable; the idea of getting a Europe-wide system of long distance railway travel together where on a single website you could book a ticket from Lisbon to Tallinn - if you try that now, where's Europe for you? Europe has not integrated at all when you look at the railways, the iron curtain is still very much noticeable in the railroads, there's only two or three places where you can cross from the old West to the old East. Night trains were abolished because of the cheap airfares, but now they're slowly coming back. I think what would be a fantastic – almost utopian challenge – is to have a continent that's dedicated to smooth, long distance railway travel.
And my second suggestion is to reconsider our relationship with agriculture. The last big change that took place in European agriculture was in the 1960s, when the European Union felt it had to compete with the cattle farmers of Argentina and the wheat and potato farmers of the United States, and hence, scale enlargement became the name of the game. The larger part of the entire budget of the European Union still goes into its common agricultural policy, it eats up money and it's completely dedicated to suboptimal, unsatisfactory agro- industries. If you could think of a way of diverting the incredible finance streams that we now pour into large agro-industries into sustainable, small-scale, high- quality farming – so that people get good products and farmers get a reasonable price for their products – that would be a revolution.
Journal d’Ambroisie: I really love these answers because they feel reachable, not changing and saving the entire world, but taking a conceivable step forward.
Dr. Joep Leerssen: I talk to a lot of people and they all come up with ideas such as: We need to abolish nuclear energy. And I say: How are you going to abolish nuclear energy? They usually reply: Well, first of all, we have to smash capitalism. So they want to change the world in order to change the world – and that is self-defeating. So we will have to change the world within the parameters that are already existing and not first change the world in order to then start changing the world.
But at the same time, on the pessimistic side, I think we have to expect that catastrophes will happen. If I look at climate change, I think we're going to look at horrendous natural catastrophes that will make life quite literally unbearable for millions and millions of people. So you can try and change the world, but I think we will also have to brace ourselves for terrible disasters.
To bring it back to a place of hope, in the end, hope is not a very happy thing to be in. On the other hand, the absence of hope is even worse. Hopelessness is not an alternative to hope. Hope means that you are living in an unrealised, imperfect situation and what the actual outlooks are for achieving that realisation might be slim. At the same time, I think there is something marvellous in that you owe it to your humanity that you do not become despondent.
Joep Leerssen is Emeritus Professor of Modern European Literature at the University of Amsterdam. In addition he holds an Emeritus Professorship at Maastricht University. A comparatist by formation, he studies post-1800 cultural history mainly as a transnational circulation of ideas and mentalities; the emphasis is on literary and discursive sources, which he analyses in their rhetoric and poetics as well as historically. His research interests are:
• nationalism and the history of national movements
• the survival of 19th-century cultural nationalism as 20th-century banal nationalism and 21st-century ethnopopulism
• the rhetoric and history of cultural and national stereotyping and ethnic characterization • the history of border regions and cultural minorities, especially in the Low Countries
• the history of the humanities since 1800, especially philology
• digital humanities: the database-assisted capture, analysis and visualisation of complex communicative networks, cultural practices and ideological diffusion patterns
You can find his list of published works here: https://leerssen.nl/publications/publ