Saturday, February 12, 2005

canons or firecrackers?

A not so interesting debate is raging in the Netherlands. It evolves around the question 'who are we?', 'what is our position in the world?', and it seems to be inspired by the fear that most citizens of this small country don't really care about where they came from, who they are, what language they speak, and what customs, traditions, and history keeps them together. Plea's are made to reintroduce canons of (national, dutch) literature and national history into the curricula of primary and high schools, to oblige students of universities and polytechnics to take courses in history, art, literature and culture at large in order to create a sense of communality, a common source, a common frame of reference, etc.

Most often educational reformers from the sixties and seventies are blamed for the loss of historical, cultural, linguistic and national consciousness that the champions of canons observe and mourne. Question is, however, whether this entirely true.

Most remarkable feature of these debates is that big words like 'tradition', 'culture', 'national identity', 'national values' and their likes cast their shadows over the debates like the threatening clouds on a stormy day in fall, but that the shapes and substance of these clouds are never ever defined. One of the culture critics - who tend to be culture pessimists in the tradition of Spengler and Ortegy y Gasset - ridiculed some representatives of the contemporary cultural elite who were not capable of answering the challenge to come up with features that define dutch national identity with other things than some trivialities like tulips, cheese and herring. The critic who had challenged these public figures, Michael Zeeman, countered their ignorance - or worse, indifference - with an example of how an Itialian waiter in Rome responded to a similar challenge: when Zeeman deliberately misquoted Dante's Inferno when he ordered his meal, he stood corrected by this waiter. Who is here to ridicule? The 'culture critic' who goes about like a quizz master to 'test' the 'national consciousness' of his victims, the waiter whose knowledge of his country's literary national treasures had not brought him a better position in life than being the waiter of this quizzmaster-on-a-mission? Or maybe it shows how ineffective and inefficient the Italian educational system is, where pupils get imbued the 'great texts' of the itialian canon, but receive no training in skills that make them fit for life in the postindustrial society?

Remarkably absent from the contributions of the culture pessimists are the 'new' dutch citizens, whose knowledge of the heroic deeds of our ancestors, the great literary works of the dutch past is less than familiar: the so called 'allochthones'.It is of course the rapid increase of the number of citizens who do not necessarily share knowledge and awareness of Holland's history, culture and traditions that makes these critics aware that a national cultural and historical consciousness can no longer be taken for granted (if it ever could). But instead of honestly admitting this and revealing the cause of their fears, they indulge in lamentations about the educational system, the indifference of the government and politicians in general, and, of course, the 'media'.

Another remarkable thing is that 'culture' or 'values' of 'national identity' always are defined in a sort of 19th century-like way. The critics are not looking forward, and not even looking around them, but they are looking backwards and try to reconstruct a sort of national identity out of a canon, and this process shows the whole circular way of reasoning: we need to go back to the canon in order to rediscover our 'national identity' and common cultural values, but on the other hand the canon can only be reconstructed if we know what national identity and which cultural values it expresses. Unfortunately, the cultural critics refuse to share their knowledge of these values, although they claim to know them.

Remarkably enough they never refer to contemporary culture, modern 'new media', the effects of globalisation, the demise of the nation state, the internationalization of (mass) culture, etc. It is quite revealing that Scheffer in his article in today's NRC only mentions new media once in a negative fashion; they 'divide' and 'individualize', and therefore they can not very well function as vehicles of a common culture. The same goes for other critics like Zeeman and Maarten Doorman (who shares his family name with one of the last dutch maritim heros, Karel Doorman).

However, as Bas Heijne pointed out in today's NRC (02-12-05), this is the kind of nostalgia that can only produce some kind of surrogate version of a past. The 'national awareness' of a 'dutch identity' can only be a surrogate because the 'real thing' never existed in the first place. Canons or firecrackers?