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Academy Discourse: Cultural Nationalism

 

news 11 October 20106:00

Professor Joep Leerssen, Hon MRIA

Professor of Modern European Languages at the Universiteit van Amsterdam
Abstract:


Recent research on nineteenth-century nationalism in Europe is moving away from "internalism": the tendency to study nationalism purely within the purview of the nationality affected, as a local ideological response to local socio-political conditions. Rather, "Cultural Transfer" models are being applied to account for the fact that nationalism occurs roughly simultaneously in societies with very dissimilar socio-political characters - Iceland and Bulgaria, Germany and Belgium, Catalonia and Finland. Related to this, cultural nationalism and the role of culture in political nationalism are given fresh attention, as a consciousness-raising precondition and as a channel for the dissemination and propagation of nationalism.
The position of Ireland in the pattern of European nationalisms is complex. Studying cultural nationalism in Ireland against the background of recent theoretical developments provides intriguing challenges both to Irish historians and to the theory of European nationalism.


Professor Leerssen received the NWO/Spinoza Prize 2008 for his innovative contributions to imagology, Irish studies and research into cultural nationalism.
Joep Leerssen (12 June 1955, Leiden) studied Comparative Literature and English at RWTH Aachen University in Germany. In 1980 he obtained an honours MA in Anglo-Irish Studies from University College Dublin. From 1982 to 1984 he was a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto and from 1984 to 1986 assistant lecturer in Aachen, before gaining his doctorate with honours from Utrecht University in 1986. Since 1991 he has been professor of Modern European Literature at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. From 1996 to 2006 he was director of the Huizinga Institute (Dutch National Research Institute and Graduate School of Cultural History). In 2003 he was a visiting professor at Harvard University. He has been a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) since 2008.
Leerssen has an impressive list of publications to his name about national stereotypes and the relationship between literature, historical awareness and nationalism. With the recent books National Thought in Europe: A Cultural History (2006) and Imagology (2007) he has permanently established his reputation. His writings often trigger innovations in the disciplines in which they intervene. He is at the forefront of scientific developments: although initially his monographs often meet with objections, they subsequently become authoritative in their field.
Leerssen has played an important role in three disciplines. In the area of Irish studies, which studies Irish cultural history on the basis of Ireland’s various cultural traditions and languages, his books are considered to be seminal. Furthermore, Leerssen has unified two paradigms in the study of 19th-century cultural nationalism: one that considers the nation to be a latently present metaphysical entity and the other that views it as a product of political manipulation. In doing this he has highlighted cultural expressions as a central and guiding aspect of political nationalism, rather than as merely a by-product. Finally he has consolidated the field of imagology, the study of the formation of images, national awareness and stereotypes, by drawing together the many initiatives in this area from across the world.
His research into the formation of images and national stereotypes has, moreover, led to a new perspective on the history of cultural nationalism. He is currently working on a large project that draws on this model to describe the 19th-century reception history of medieval literature in its impact on the nation-forming processes in Europe.
Leerssen is one of the founders and leading lights of the interdisciplinary field of European Studies, which has become a successful degree course and productive research programme at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Using his own unique profile, he has developed an impressive interdisciplinary methodology for this discipline, which combines the history of political ideas and cultural history and which studies literature as a source for the history of imagination patterns and ideologies.
Leerssen is a leading and erudite academic with a very extensive knowledge of languages and history. His considerable rhetorical talent not only makes him a highly popular speaker but also an inspiring and compelling lecturer. His current projects and plans give the Spinoza Committee every reason to have high expectations for the stimulation that the Spinoza Prize will bring to his work.

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