National Identity and National Stereotype

We know most foreign cultures, and much of our own culture, by reputation only. We have an “image” of the Scottish, Belgian or Spanish national character even though we personally may know at most only a handful of people from those countries, and have no way of assessing how “typical” these persons are as representatives of their nation. Even so, we have no problem in recognizing certain temperamental attributes as being “typical” for certain nations: the Scottish reputation for stinginess, the Belgian reputation for stupidity, the Spanish reputation for pride, are sufficiently well known for us to enjoy jokes or stories which invoke, and rely on a knowledge of, those attributes.

The Prejudice Map. According to Google, people in the world are known for...
The Prejudice Map.
According to Google, people in the world are known for…

There is a degree of vagueness as to the “truth” of these commonplaces concerning national character. Many people will admit a curious sort of half-belief, stating that, yes, of course, they are stereotypes and generalizations, but at the same time it cannot be denied that there are significant differences between Scotsmen and Spaniards…

Ethnic or national stereotypes and commonplaces form the subject of an approach in literary studies called “image studies” (imagologie in French, Dutch and German). Image studies starts from the presupposition that the degree of truth of such commonplaces is not a necessary issue in their scholarly analysis. Imagologists tend to be extremely sceptical concerning the objective information value of such “images”, and stress the incalculable amount of suffering that such prejudices have caused (e.g. the treatment of Jews in various European countries throughout history; the treatment of supposedly “inferior” and sub-human natives in various European colonies), as opposed to their total lack of usefulness in concrete (political, economic or practical) terms. However, an imagologist would see his/her business in similar terms to those of, for instance, a historian who deals with witchcraft. It does not matter to such a historian whether witchcraft really “worked” or not; nor does it matter whether it was morally right or wrong to conjure up (effectively or ineffectively) occult forces. What matters is the belief that people vested in witchcraft, and the historically REAL consequences of that belief.

In other words: even though the belief is irrational, the impact of that belief is anything but unreal.

It is on this basis that imagologists maintains scientific hygiene when studying national stereotypes: by refusing to enter into debates about the degree of objective “validity” and by keeping a certain (necessary) amount of clinical, antiseptic distance.

In actual practice this means that, in studying national stereotypes and alleged “national characters” or national reputations, an imagologist is not concerned with the question whether that reputation is true, but how it has become recognizable. That interest (not in “truthfulness” but in “recognizability”) means that images are studied, not as items of information about reality, but as properties of their context. If somewhere we read that the British are individualists, the first question we ask is not: “is that true?”; rather, the questions are all about the (con)text, e.g.:

  • Who is saying this? What audience is the author addressing? Why is it important for this author to make this point? What are the political circumstances at the time this text was written? How does the author attempt to convince the reader of the validity of his claim? How does this image of British individualism fit into the text as a whole — and what sort of text is it anyway: an essay, or a novel, or a poem?

Asking such questions has led to a number of important insights.

Texts that say something on national character frequently rely, not on a first-hand observation of reality, but almost always on an existing reputation. Often, earlier authors are quoted or mentioned; and if one looks up those earlier authors, one finds that they in turn depend on their source-texts. In other words: the referential signification process in national stereotypes does not take place between text and reality, but between text and text. National stereotypes are intertextual constructs: the conventions and commonplaces inherited from a pre-existing textual tradition fully overshadow the experience of reality. This, again, means that the historical force of national stereotypes lies more in their recognition value than in their pretended truth value. National stereotypes provoke something which in German is called an Aha!-Effekt: a commonplace (stupid Belgians, proud Spaniards) sounds familiar, and the audience confuses the sense of familiarity with a sense of validity.

The representation of alleged national characters, as a textual tradition, obeys built-in rules, which are quite independent of the political and social reality of the moment. Thus, structural similarities can be found in the representation of different countries.

Some of the structural constants in these representations may be listed as follows:

  • The north of any given country is more down-to-earth, more businesslike, more prosaic, more individualist and more freedom-loving that the south of that country (which is more idyllic, more easy-going, but less reliable or businesslike). That goes for the stereotyped differences between the north and south of Holland, England, Germany, Italy, France etc. etc. The fact that the South of Germany is to the “north” of the North of Italy is a short-circuit which disproves this assumption but has not effaced its existence.
  • The periphery of any given area is more traditional, timeless, backward, “natural”; the centre of that area is more cosmopolitan, modern, progressive, “cultural”. Those values may be seen in a positive or in a negative light, and the area in question may be a whole country (Netherlands, with the “randstad” for a centre and Groningen, Drente … Limburg, Zeeland as a periphery; France; England); or a region within that country (Amsterdam, with its “downtown” area central amidst the periphery of its suburbs and “satellietsteden”; Limburg, with Maastricht for a centre and the countryside as a periphery; or even “The EC”, with its industrialized centre in the area Ruhrgebiet-Birmingham-Paris-Munich and it periphery consisting of the poorer, agricultural areas in the Mediterranean and Atlantic seaboards). An extreme example is Eurocentric thought, with the “Third World” as a global periphery. In all these examples (which, as in the previous case, are mutually incompatible but nevertheless simultaneously existing) the aforementioned temperamental attributes ascribed to the “centre” or the “periphery” are structurally similar: changing development (for better or for worse) in the centre, tradition/backwardness at the periphery.
  • Countries are always contradictory in a specific way: their most characteristic attribute always involves its own opposite. Thus Frenchmen are either formal, rational, cool, distanced (type: Giscard d’Estaing) or else excitable, sanguine, passionate (type: Louis de Funès); the English are either tea-drinking, respectable and with a “stiff upper lip” (type: Miss Marple or Phileas Fogg) or else robust, no-nonsense, nonconformist and easily offended (type: Winston Churchill, John Bull); the Dutch are either fearless defenders of tolerance and liberty, or else boring bourgeois obsessed with cleaning windows; etc. etc. The ultimate cliché that can be said of virtually any country is that it is “full of contrasts”. If one follows the development of an image through literary history, one sees how this ambivalence is often caused by conflicting sources which are brought under the same head. If author A says that the Irish are violent, and author B says that the Irish are sentimental, then author C will reconcile A and B by saying that the Irish are characterized by a “typical combination of violence and sentimentality”. Which of these two contradictory attributes is then most emphasized, depends on the political attitude of the author, on the point he is trying to make.

Stereotypes can be positive or negative in their valorization, depending on the political circumstances: countries which present a threat of political or economic rivalry are usually described in negative terms, giving rise to xenophobia; countries which do not pose any threat are represented in “cute” terms, giving rise to exoticism or “xenophilia”.

Thus an image can shift along with changing political circumstances. As Spain became a smaller power, its image become more positive and exoticist: from Alva and the Inquisition to “Carmen” and serenades, flamenco, bullfights and castanets; conversely, when Germany developed in the nineteenth century into an industrial, imperialist power, its image changed from romantic poets and musicians (Schubert, Eichendorff) to Prussian officers and mad scientists. Of course, flamenco and “romantic” trappings existed in Spain during the 17th century, and Alva found a successor recently in the person of Franco — the image changes, not because the alleged Spanish national character changes, but because the attitude towards Spain changes, and people accordingly note, emphasize and describe different aspects (selected and presented as “typically” or “characteristically” Spanish).

All this illustrates that the imagologist studies, not only, the image of the nation in question, but also the context, more importantly the attitude of the author. One of the basic insights in image studies is that the mechanism of the representation of foreign nations can only be analysed properly if we take the attitude of the author into account. A representation of Britain by a Frenchman or by a Dutchman or by a German may differ because of the nationality of the respective authors. For this reason the imagologist distinguishes between auto-images and hetero-images: the attitudes one has towards ine own cultural values (self-image, auto-image) and the attitude towards the other (hetero-image). Any representation of cultural relations is a representation of a cultural confrontation; and the author’s own cultural values and presupposititions are inevitably involved in this confrontation. There is, in other words, always a degree of subjectivity (auto-image) involved in the representation of another culture. This unavoidable degree of subjectivity is one of the main differences between an “image” and objective information.

The most important conclusion that can be drawn from the above is this: that nobody is in a position to describe a cultural identity. What is described is always a cultural difference, a sense in which one nation is perceived to be “different from the rest”. This means that cross-nationally common values are usually taken for granted, and that such representations are governed by the implicit a priori presupposition that a nation is most itself in those aspects wherein it is most unlike the others. This presupposition restricts identity to particularism and exoticism, and precludes us from realizing that all our identities define us as part of, and not in contradistinction to, humanity as a whole.

by : Joep Leerssen

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