T.H.E. Social Construction of Norway

A talk with Thomas Hylland Eriksen




Gardar Eide Einarsson, Eivind Slettemeas, Stephan Dillemuth: Thomas Hylland Eriksen you are a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo. What is 'social anthropology' concerned with and ...what does it have to do with Norway specifically?

Thomas Hylland Eriksen: The point about studying Norway anthropologically is to offer a comparative perspective. Put differently: if you are able to see Norway from the position of another culture, say, that of New Guinea or Southern Africa, you will see the peculiar aspects of that society more clearly than otherwise.

Q: We are interested in a specific aspect of the origin and ongoing transformation of a civic public: the formation of structures and forms of communication that act as a nucleus for the condensation of critical thought.

THE: To me it seemed as if your main interest in this project was the development of a public sphere -and whether it has particular, specific features in Norway. The public sphere in Norway is very fragile, with a low indigenous aristocracy and a relatively weak bourgeois urban culture, nationhood and nation-building took place comparatively late. I would suspect that a lot depends on individuals at any time, rather than institutions as it does in some of the other European "post-colonial" countries.

Q: Let us use the phrase "condensation points" to describe the move from the individual to the institutional. I see the need for self-defining structures to foster and promote dissent from the status quo. It is a process by which the communication/articulation of individual positions is translated into group-structures. These group-structures assume a semi-institutional approach and attempt to insert their dissent into the established order. So that by the end of this process we arrive at certain changes, compromises, a general public acceptance, and an institutionalisation of ideas; that is, a new status quo is created.

THE: The Norwegian public sphere primarily existed abroad for a long time - in fact, well into the 20th century. All its important premises were based abroad - the publishing houses were in Copenhagen, people went to University in Copenhagen - even when Norway got its own University in 1811, the Norwegians still went to study in Denmark or other European countries. The idea of an autonomous, strong public sphere in Norway is quite recent …

Q: Did these elites who were studying abroad not cultivate an idea of a Norwegian public in exile?

THE: Yes, they did. There were certain circles that created a Norwegian public sphere in exile.

Q: Did this constitute a Norwegian public in your opinion or should these attempts be seen as part of the Danish public?

THE: This is not a relevant question, because there were no nation states at the time. Copenhagen was also the capital of Norway. Nationalism in that sense did not exist in Norway in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.
The transition from the heroic age of Norwegian nationhood (notably the Viking age) to the "four-hundred years' night" under Danish rule has been re-written by historians lacking the nationalist bias formerly widespread, and it has become possible to argue that there was no "necessary" continuity between the medieval Norwegian state and that Norwegian nation-state which was created in 1814, and which gained full independence in 1905.

Q: But, at the end of the 18th century the 'brain' was asking where it came from … Maybe it was easier to try to define Norway - what it could be - from without. As a social anthropologist you might share that point of view. Only back then, the exile-Norwegian-intelligentsia went back to look for its roots and discovered some sort of 'authentic' Norwegian identity.

THE: Some of them did, but there were also many others (especially writers) who were not concerned with questions of national identity. They were asking the 'big' questions: questions about life, love, and death. According to common knowledge, Norwegian National Romanticism had an enormous boost in the late 1840's through a major exhibition of National Romantic paintings. It was a high point of 'Romantic Nationalism'.

Q: If that exhibition had such an impact then, an artistic and intellectual discourse must have already existed at the time. These things do not come out of nowhere...

THE: The curious thing about Norwegian nationalism in the late 19th century was that it was not unambiguously political - it did not necessarily demand full independence from Sweden. The way we understand 19th century Norwegian history is contradictory: on the one hand Norway was in an enforced union with Sweden but on the other hand the 19th century saw an enormous blossoming of Norwegian nationalism of every kind - in the arts, literature, music, everywhere: Norway effectively became a modern country. These things could only happen during Norway's "suppression" because an unambiguous, universal equivalence between 'nation' and 'state' did not yet exist. This idea came only later. By 1905 it was self-evident, but still grew slowly. You could have had 'Romantic Nationalism' without assuming a sovereign state as necessary prerequisite. The same with a national public sphere and so on… Culturally, Norway was never dominated as much by Sweden as by Denmark…in terms of its major institutions, its language and so on.

Q: Today the nation states feel threatened by the coming-into-being of a global culture and a global economy. In your statements it becomes obvious how cultural nationalism and economic globalism go hand in hand. Produce (culture) locally and sell globally. The idea of a Scandinavian art - that is also art from Norway - is riddled with national Romantic images: Blond girls in front of birches sell well as a national product.

THE: It is clearly a political issue - I assume that most contemporary Norwegian artists would argue that Norwegian art has to be part of a global scene in order to survive and that art is inherently global. Unlike literature for example, which is language-bound.

Q: Nikolaus Luhmann problematises our increasingly functionally differentiated societies because their single parts gain more and more autonomy. Outside of culturetainment, fewer and fewer people seem to see art as an intellectual project aimed at changing the status quo.

THE: One of the reasons I am worried about what is happening to academia right now is that we do not have many other institutions that uphold the idea of a public sphere - there only seem to be individuals…

Q: What kind of other institutions would be necessary communication partners in order to uphold the idea of a public sphere?

THE: One might consider literary, political, and scientific communities that are concerned with issues relevant to society and culture without being co-opted by the state. They are extremely thinly spread here; a lot depends on interpersonal networks, which are often both fragile and stuffy.

Q: Can we talk about the fragmentation of the public? Can the fragmented parts communicate with each other…? Are we heading towards a society constituted by tribes?

THE: In what sense are you using the word tribal here? ...tribal constructions of the public sphere? Tribes would not be constructing a public, would they? Not the public sphere in our sense of the word, anyway.

Q: If we understand the public sphere as a container for an (often controversial) discussion which was once motivated by the responsibility to organise a common agenda we can see the PRIVATISATION of this public under two aspects: an increasingly differentiated society creates more and more specialised families or tribes. Alongside, state funding disappears and the total subordination of national economies to global corporate capital results in increasingly fragmented societies which are dependent on corporate funding. In the end, global economy seems the only common denominator, because it has infiltrated every public on every level. So far this is the scenario as I see it, but it is still very far removed from Norwegian reality.

THE: It is difficult for me to comment on art institutions - I do not really have an insight into that. But if you want to talk about self-organisation as such: cultural life in Norway has to be heavily subsidised in order to be viable - in the case of literature this becomes obvious, since the Norwegian market is simply too small. But it is also the case for the fine arts, meaning to say that being autonomous from institutions is not very easy, you cannot have it both ways, that is, institutional autonomy and huge state subsidies at the same time…

Q: There seems to have been quite a self-conscious attempt in Norway to build a 'cultural public' - you were talking about the decrease in the funding of universities - we have lost the art education scholarship (kunstfagstipend). Do you think that the decrease in state support is a conscious decision?

THE: My impression is that the political elites have a very poor understanding of what is at stake here - the kind of civilising cultural values that are at stake. There is a very strong utilitarian vibe in Norwegian politics at the moment where immediate use-value seems to be the only thing that matters.

Q: I was wondering if this decrease in cultural funding was inspired by the belief that the corporations would take over the former role of the state - as happened in Britain, with the belief that education should be more in tune with corporate needs…

THE: This tendency is certainly to be found all over the Western World at present, and it is probably going to have an impact here, as well. It is difficult to foresee the consequences of that - you might even get a situation where art becomes more independent, since there will be many more different agencies to relate to, but I cannot really see that happening in Norway - maybe in Denmark with its stronger tradition of patronage in relation to the arts.

Q: Do you think this might signal a shift on the side of the decision makers from seeing culture as the main tool for the construction of national identity to seeing corporations as the most functional tool for (re-) structuring the image of the nation-state? I am here for example thinking of Finland, which has for a long time marketed itself through its design-tradition, but now seems to be emphasising its new economy credentials (nokialand) instead.

THE: This kind of shift certainly may happen, and has indeed already been satirised in fiction, for example in David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest", where segments of the calendar are copyrighted by corporations so that one gets e.g. "the year of the whopper" instead of, say, 2001. Nevertheless, it presupposes a stronger, more confident, and more socially conscious enterprise culture than the one we have here. The state and state-dominated companies are still perceived as the most important agents in Norwegian economy, probably with some justification.

Q: I think the current debate in Norway about cultural differentiation must look strange from abroad, since this is something that happened 20 years ago but is coming back in Norway. Not only as a political question, but also as a question of cultural identity…

THE: …also because of the comparative lack of civil society - the weakness of civil society is striking in Norway.