Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Culture, Cultivation, and Romantic Nationalism

  • Historical background and contextEurope (general)
  • Author:
    Leerssen, Joep
  • Cultural Field:
    Background
  • Text:

    The Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism hinges around the “cultivation of culture”: national consciousness-raising on cultural grounds. Culture, or cultural difference, does not in itself necessarily generate national movements; what is needed for that is an awareness of the nation as culturally different from its non-members, and the investment of that awareness with a moral commitment capable of driving social and political mobilization.

    Cultivation: consciousness-raising

    The cultivation of culture can self-amplify and intensify, through a succession of feedback cycles, from a zero- or stand-by-state to fully-fledged political propaganda and mobilization.

    • The zero-state may be defined as the inert, inconsequential presence of an ambient culture which is tacitly and passively taken for granted.
    • An awareness of this culture as present and identity-forming can emerge out of this, often as a result of changing circumstances, challenges posed by modernity, or hegemonic repression. This awareness often expresses itself in forms of salvaging, stock-taking, text editions and other forms of cultural inventory.
    • Subsequently, this awareness can generate cultural inspiration and active commitment in the form of cultural activities and practices;
    • and ultimately, in a stage of cultural instrumentalization, culture can serve as the mobilizing rallying-point for deliberate proclamations and manifestations of the nation’s separate identity.

    These four stages of intensifying cultivation (from inert to inventory to inspiration to instrumentalization) are encountered both in long-sovereign states and in marginalized minority communities. It should be stressed that they are by no means the unidirectional successive steps in a logical and self-propelling progression towards nationalism. Various stages of intensity can be encountered at one and the same time in different sections of the community and in different cultural fields (e.g., theatre and painting); and after a period of intensification the volume knob can be turned down again and a de-intensification can set in. Michael Billig’s notion of “banal nationalism” is essentially the return to an inert state of ambient non-awareness as the end-result of a process of de-intensification.

    Nor do the intensifying stages of a cultivation of culture map neatly onto the three phases of national movements as defined by Miroslav Hroch; all intensity stages are encountered in each phase.

    Culture as knowledge production and artistic production; the agency of intellectuals and artists

    In its focus on the cultivation of culture, ERNiE uses the notion of “culture”, not in a broad anthropological sense, as the habitual patterns of daily life (e.g. monogamy, footwear, taxation), but as the production and dissemination of art and knowledge. Much of this is nationally unspecific (e.g. mathematics or the diatonic musical system) and thus falls outside the scope of the Encyclopedia. What does fall within its purview are a number of fields of cultural production which can be rubricated as follows:

    • knowledge production concerning the nation’s language, its past, its textual, material, and immaterial heritage, its popular culture and ethnography.
    • artistic production in the fields of literature, the visual and performative arts, architecture, and music.
    • the institutional and associational infrastructures disseminating cultural productions: theatres, academies, reading rooms, periodicals etc.

    It should be pointed out that what is listed here are not just “cultural fields” but, much more specifically, “fields of cultural (re)production” and that as such they define, not the cultural identity of a nation but a set of (culturally-focused) social practices in a national movement. The agents in these fields are [1] the cultural products and acts of production (books, paintings, buildings, musical and theatrical performances, lectures, festivals) and [2] the human and institutional actors involved. The human actors are primarily culture-producers: artists and intellectuals. They fit the notion of the Vorkämpfer in Miroslav Hroch’s study of national movements. As such they belong neither to the social elite nor to the popular masses, but can be found across all social strata, from self-taught village schoolmasters to aristocratic Academy secretaries and from sculptors on royal travelling grants to the local informants of folklore fieldworkers. Taken together, these culture-producers establish a conduit across class divisions, between elite and masses. They represent, as a cohort, a microcosm of the exact ideal of the nationalist ideology: a community held together by shared culture and cultural interests across class divisions.

    The nation as a cultural and moral community: mores, character, ethnotypes

    ERNiE wherever possible avoids the use of the term “nation”, which is too fluid and vague to offer an analytical lens on the wide variety of phenomena that this Encyclopedia covers. The notion of a cultural community is used instead, i.e. a group of people sharing a cultural ambience and sharing a joint awareness of their common cultural ambience. To which extent a cultural community develops or intensifies the aspiration to claim, as a “nation”, a separate position in Europe’s cultural and national landscape, is an ideological and historical contingency (the tracing of which is the core business of this Encyclopedia), for which the cultural community offers a possible starting point but not a fixed frame.

    Pragmatically, the set of cultural communities covered in ERNiE is largely defined according to the criterion which language speakers developed claims to the political or cultural status of being a “nation”; but some non-linguistic categories (Jews, Switzerland, Belgium) are also included on the strength of their historical self-manifestations. Ethnolinguistic labeling is difficult and often contentious; the rubrics here are flexible “tags”, which can (if applicable) be used in combination (e.g. Belgian plus Flemish; Flemish plus Dutch; Occitan plus Provençal plus French), rather than as single, unitary, mutually-exclusive pigeon-holes.

    In line with Ernest Renan’s argument that the nation comes into being as the result of a deliberate act of self-recognition (rather than as the infallible outcome of a shared language or past), the nation is here seen, not as a natural fact of life but as a historically emergent moral community. ERNiE uses the term “moral” throughout in a broad, neutral sense, as per the traditional distinction between moral and natural philosophy. Derived from the Latin mores, “manners, customs, social conventions”, “moral” as used here refers to every conscious reflection on the nation’s social interactions and activities, and the value systems underlying these.

    This idea of the nation as a moral community revolves centrally around of the nation’s (self-)perceived character. Indeed, the discourse of national self-reflection invariably, though unobtrusively, invokes the assumption that the nation’s social cohesion rests on a shared set of temperamental characteristics, and that the nation is indentified by this character more than anything else.

    The idea of national character and its historical development is outside the scope of this Encyclopedia and can here be very briefly summarized from a long accumulation of work in intellectual history and by that branch of Comparative Literature called imagology.  After a long pre-history of unsystematic, anecdotal foreigner-characterizations and pre-scientific temperamental attributes (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic etc.), systematic formulations of national characteristics started with the neo-Aristotelian poeticists of 17th-century France. Around that time, too, the very terminology of “character” as the motivating foundation of the individual personality crystallized. This culminated into a systematic anthropology of the national characters with Montesquieu’s L’esprit des Lois (taken up, albeit very critically, by David Hume in his essay “Of national characters”). The idea of national character, constitutive of a nation’s collective identity much as the personal character is for the identity of an individual, was already a commonplace for the encyclopedias of the later 18th century, and informs the thought of J.G. Herder and Madame de Staël. It fed into Savigny’s and Jahn’s notions of Volksgeist and Volkstum, and from there suffused all of national thought in the post-Napoleonic century.

    The nation’s character is usually evoked in moral and temperamental attributes, virtues and vices: gaiety, earnestness, pride or patience. Additionally, generic (nationally a-specific) human virtues or vices like truthfulness, honour, hospitality or piety may also be invoked and appropriated as being specifically characteristic of a given nation. The end-result of such a temperamental, collective-psychological characterization is often of a formulaic nature, ingrained through many textual reiterations, and indeed so persistently present and recycled that it amounts to a stereotype. A case in point is the French-German opposition between deftness and thoroughness, frivolity and ponderousness, esprit and geist, civilisation and Kultur. Such a stereotypically recycled type of national character is technically called an ethnotype; users will find the term used in the Encyclopedia.

    Nationalism, in one valid definition among others, can be seen as the elevation of a cultural self-image into a political agenda.

    Word Count: 1410

    Herder, Johann Gottfried

    Jahn, Friedrich Ludwig (“Turnvater”)

    Savigny, Friedrich Carl von

    Staël, Anne Louise Germaine de (née Necker)

    The Cultivation of Culture matrix

  • Article version:
    1.1.1.1/a
  • Leerssen, Joep; 2006. “Nationalism and the cultivation of culture”, Nations and nationalism 12.4: 559-578

    Leerssen, Joep; 2008. National thought in Europe (2nd ed. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP)


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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Leerssen, Joep, 2018. "Culture, Cultivation, and Romantic Nationalism", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version 1.1.1.1/a, last changed 10-08-2018, consulted 07-12-2019.