svētdiena, 2013. gada 15. decembris

Dr. Henningsen: Identity building never stops

Šoreiz pārpublicēju vācu profesora Dr. Bernda Henningsena ievadu 2011. gada zinātniskajam rakstam par Baltijas Jūras reģiona identitātes meklējumiem. Tas ir temats, kas ne tikai pilnā mērā attiecas uz Latviju, kas atrodas šajā reģionā, bet saskan arī ar mūsu pašu identitātes meklējumiem, sniedz ļoti labu ieskatu to jēdzienu būtībā un ļauj uz dažiem Latvijas debatēs iztirzājamajiem jautājumiem paskatīties no cita skatupunkta.

Šo eseju ir publicējis Baltic Development Forum un tā pilnā apjomā ir pieejama tīmeklī šeit.

INTRODUCTION to “On Identity – No Identity”, an Essay on the Constructions, Possibilities and Necessities for Understanding a European Macro Region: The Baltic Sea (2011)

by Prof. Dr. Bernd Henningsen

In their March 2011 elections, Estonians overwhelmingly endorsed the radical spending cuts enacted by their market liberal government. The Munich Süddeutsche Zeitung (8.3.2011, p. 4: “Vorbild Estland”) wrote a post- mortem of the event, which surprised the rest of Europe in the aftermath, that discussed the event in terms of the unique psychological and historical traits of Estonia: Estonia is not Germany, nor is it Greece, as “every society ticks differently” (although the Autumn prior had seen Latvia vote similarly):

“That Estonia possessed a great willingness [to sacrifice] lies primarily in a mindset particular to the Baltic Sea Region: Scandinavian level-headedness paired with the Protestant work ethic and spirit of sacrifice, as well as an invocation of the fundamental Hanseatic value of only spending that one has earned.”

This concise and highly relevant commentary goes straight to the heart of the topic at hand: there exists a deeply-held public belief that there exist national (or regional) differences, called a ‘mentality’ or ‘identity’. As a rule, however, what are meant are stereotypes. Academia confirms the importance of and the great interest in this theme: there are whole libraries full of material covering the question of ‘identity’ – during the modern era alone. With the rise of ‘regionalism’ – as a political movement and as a subject of research – in the sixties and seventies, it has become understandably clear that the concept of identity covers not only nations or regions within nations, but also linguistic, cultural, or historical spaces in- and outside of nations: Occitania, Maghreb, the Danube – or, in the article quoted above, the Baltic Sea Region.

The regionalism of the seventies emphasised autonomy, not only from central authority, but rather it could be understood as an anti-modernity movement. Since the nineties, regionalisation has meant emphasising one’s own qualities apropos the structural changes resulting from globalisation[1]. In this context, interest in the term ‘identity’ surely increased; later even more so. Identity, whether national or regional, gained its value as a demarcation, and was fundamentalised in political discourse: it is something(!) that separates us from others; as a rule, this ‘something’ is a virtue – we are better than others. The drawback to ‘identity’ is always the devaluation of others, and when this difference serves as a political device, is a form of “cultural racism”[2] – collateral damage in the search for identity. One can observe this essentialist, substantialist conception of identity in almost every country of the Baltic Sea Region – in the rise of the right-wing populist, even radical right-wing movements that have adopted opposition to the “other” and securing one’s own ‘cultural identity’ as their program. Whether or not a regional identity – be this European or belonging to only part of the Union – can repair this collateral damage must be challenged apropos the debate on ‘Fortress Europe’. However let us put this aside for a moment and instead pursue the origin of this term.

Since the French Revolution, nations have searched for the meaning of these terms (in the Middle Ages and the Early modern period, it was rank order, the hierarchy of nations relative to each other, which preoccupied people and lead to conflicts)[3]. In this sense, one can date the modern search for national identity back to the collapse of the legitimation system of the Ancien Regime, mainly because the self-proclaimed “People’s Court” tried and executed the highest bearer of national identity and legitimation, namely the king. Divine right was destroyed through this symbolically charged act, and popular sovereignty was reclaimed – the people became the holders of sovereignty and the originators of identity, which up until now could not have been referred to as national identity, as no clear nation, in the modern sense, yet existed. In any case, the search for a national-genetic origin makes it clear that this has a great deal to do with nationalisation and a quest for meaning in processes of modernisation.

The shift of the basis of sovereignty from a monarch to the people makes it necessary to re-establish the concept of national identity. The search for what constitutes a people or nation had certainly found answers earlier – but after the French Revolution, this search attained its true political meaning. This came about not only because this shift in sovereignty was also symbolically unprecedented, as the people sent the head of state, the sovereign, who was also the sum total of sovereignty, to the guillotine and decapitated him.

When one states that this question deals with a process of modernisation – which has occurred since the Enlightenment and the Revolution – then one must also answer the question of when this process will end, successfully or otherwise. The answer is “never!” The concept of the nation-state has been successfully established, and has successfully promoted itself over the past 200 years. The nation-state concept has also taken root in the large-scale conflicts and catastrophes of the 20th century, as well as in 21st century conflicts that affect us to this (the collapse of Yugoslavia is the latest, and still important, example in Europe).

This is also the de facto basis for the so-called continuing search for identity in Europe and the world; momentous political events and important political turning points push this search forward: in Norway and Denmark, one push came at the beginning of the seventies, in the form of the debates over entering the European Economic Community. The inhabitants of these Scandinavian nations have since then become unsettled by the ever-advancing process of transnationalising Europe – and are in the midst of a search for their national identity that is hardly rivalled by any other nation on the continent. Since the collapse of the Soviet system, the majority of Europe, especially its eastern parts, has been engaged in a debate on national identity. Finally, this has become so prevalent that even the Italians, after 150 years of national unity, are now asserting that they are not a united nation[4].

The combination of the turning of the epoch, the perception of crises or actual socio-economical or political crises as the instigator of a strengthened search for identity is the topic of many observations and texts. Thomas Mann observed a rampant fundamentalism apropos Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West” during the early twenties[5], and Aleida Assmann corroborated the tendency, during the beginning of the nineties, of western postmodern society “to re-arm their identity”[6].

When reflecting on the process of finding identity, especially that process applied on a regional level, one must keep in mind the aforementioned conflicts in the process of nationalisation and transnationalisation over the past 200 years: sometimes, complexity hints can clarify an issue – and make a deconstruction unavoidable.

In the Baltic Sea identity, put forth by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Scandinavian level-headedness, a Protestant work ethic and spirit of sacrifice, and a traditional, mercantile integrity are identified as key regional characteristics. Could this perception be plausible for someone who views this region from afar? Estonia and Latvia are not part of Scandinavia, instead, they too are – at least from a historical perspective – German-oriented (at least Latvia and, in part, Estonia), which is itself a basis for Scandinavian identity, as they are not particularly religiously uniformly Protestant, as the Scandinavian countries are. The aforementioned trader’s ethic, tightly bound as it is to the time of the Hanseatic League, belongs to a time that is hundreds of years in the past. Finally, voters in other parts of the Baltic Sea region – for example, Denmark and Sweden – have voted contrarily to what one would expect from the Baltic history of victimisation: they have previously removed economically successful governments from office, true to the Asterix motto, which is to stick it to the ones in power.

Could it be that the Latvians and Estonians, as a result of this perception, have made the choices they have made because they had no other choice? Could it be that after decades of dependence and economic malaise, they saw their only chance at a future in Europe-prescribed market liberalism? Are their choices determined not by identity, but economic opportunity? It is not the spirit, but the stomach, which governs the behaviour of voters. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia, expressed this sentiment, albeit in a more reserved fashion: “Our people are well-grounded ... We have endured so many tribulations, that these cutbacks are relatively bearable ... People feel that this is a price that they must pay for freedom – and they are ready to pay it.” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2.5.2001, p. 8, “Wir werden nicht mehr die armen Nachbarn sein”) A previous office holder and supporter of Realpolitik, Lennart Meri, asserted in 1996 that the nation had a healthy amount of common sense, which provided it with insights, such as that the earth is round, and that it makes sense to possess and promote a “constructive impatience”[7]; he used the term ‘Peasant’s cunning’ politically, in this context, it sounds less theatrical than ‘identity’.

With this question mark at the beginning, I suggest that the issue of identity is not easy, whether it be national or regional identity. We speak (and write) about it, as if it were self-evident in theory and practice. This is not the case! Whoever attempts to describe identity, who seeks to understand it as national identity, quickly remembers the experience of Augustine, father of the church, concerning the phenomenon of time. Augustine stated that he naturally knew exactly what time was – if no one asked him. However, at the moment anyone asked him what time was, he could not say. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer originated this absentminded phrase: “Yes, if you could tell me who I am, I would be very grateful.” In other words, we are surrounded by terms that are crucial to our understanding of reality, whose explanations never escape contradiction. These terms include terms like ‘mentality’, ‘character’, ‘culture’ – and, in a particular way, the term ‘identity’. They are necessary for the metabolism of society, but are not realistic as precise terms for identification and definition, especially since they alter our reality – the contemporary term ‘identity’ is not identical to an older one, and the same is true for the term ‘culture’. We no longer live in homogeneous (cultural) worlds[8].

Since it is again possible to consider the Baltic Sea Region in its entirety and to act politically within it, the concept of a Baltic Sea identity is again part of the debate. It has become a constant companion to the discursive constructions of the region. The attempts to achieve some clarity in this discussion of identity are similarly old – but they have not been very successful. Identity, whether in plural or singular, is held to be pre-existing – but on closer inspection, it is a rule that what is actually meant by ‘identity’ are traditions, historical constants, and national characteristics; and this entirely with the knowledge that traditions, values, norms, and cultural practices are subject to change and serve to distinguish between nations. One example of this is the perpetually relevant question of orientation: Baltic or Nordic? The nations of the Baltic Sea Region have distinct cultural backgrounds, different hierarchies of values and norms, let alone different political cultures. There is no consensus on what a ‘Baltic Sea Identity’ is, these last 20 years notwithstanding. All the same, it must be established that the endless debate over (regional) identity is an indication that there does exist something that moves minds – and constructors of identity.

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[1] Lindner, Rolf: Einleitung. In: Id. (ed.): Die Wiederkehr des Regionalen. Über neue Formen kultureller Identität. Frankfurt/M. (pp. 7-12), p. 7; concerning the debate during the subsequent period, cf. Haslinger, Peter (ed.): Regionale und nationale Identitäten. Wechselwirkungen und Spannungsfelder im Zeitalter moderner Staatlichkeit. Würzburg 2000; this serves as the backdrop for Hilde Dominique Engelen’s discussion of modern Baltic Sea regionalism at a fundamental level: Die Konstruktion der Ostseeregion: Akteure, mentale Landkarten und ihr Einfluss auf die Entstehung einer Region. In: Götz, Norbert, Jörg Hackmann, Jan Hecker-Stampehl (eds.): Die Ordnung des Raums. Mentale Landkarten in der Ostseeregion. Berlin 2006, pp. 61-90.

[2] Welsch, Wolfgang: Transkulturalität. Lebensformen nach der Auflösung der Kulturen. In: Informationen Philosophie 2/1991.

[3] Cf. Henningsen, Bernd: The Swedish Construction of Nordic Identity. In: Sørensen, Øystein, Bo Stråth (eds.): The Cultural Construction of Norden. Oslo 1997, pp. 91-120.

[4] Ginsborg, Paul: Italien retten. Berlin 2011.

[5] Cit. Assmann, Aleida: Zum Problem der Identität aus kulturwissenschaftlicher Sicht. In: Lindner, loc. cit., (pp. 13-35) p. 30.

[6] Assmann, loc. cit., p. 31.

[7] Meri, Lennart: A European Mind. Selected Speeches. Tallinn 2009, p. 68-71.

[8] Welsch, Wolfgang: Transkulturalität – die veränderte Verfassung heutiger Kulturen. Ein Diskurs mit Johann Gottfried Herder. In: Via Regia 20/1994 http://www.via-regia.org/bibliothek/pdf/heft20/welsch_transkulti.pdf [20.9.2001]

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