Englishness, Nationalism, Brexit.

Saskia and Jeremy

Image courtesy of Ed Brookes.

This week’s Landscape Surgery was convened by Saskia Papadakis (RHUL) and Jeremy Brown (RHUL in conjunction with the British Library) and was entitled Englishness, Nationalism, Brexit. The  session focused on historical and contemporary understandings of ‘Englishness’ and how nationalism continues to influence British politics.

Prior to the session, surgeons were invited to read Michèle Cohen’s paper (2001) ‘The Grand Tour. Language, National Identity and Masculinity’. Jeremy began by explaining how the paper explores changing attitudes to concepts of ‘Englishness’ and masculinity in relation to the notions of the Grand Tour in the 18th Century. Surgeons were then also invited to consider Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever’s paper (2017), ‘Racism, Crisis, Brexit’. Summarised by Saskia who highlights how the paper positions racism within England at the centre of debates around what may have led Brexit in the UK. Surgeons were then asking to note down three key words which we felt highlighted the relationship between the texts. A selection of these words are present within the word-cloud below:

LS Word Cloud

Following this, we broke off into smaller groups and were asked to consider the following pairs of questions and to feedback our thoughts and ideas to the wider group as a whole:

Firstly, Group 1 were asked to consider the idea of ‘is the nation-state a useful category of analysis/unit of space?’. Group 1 began with the provocation of can you afford to vacate the nation state? If you do vacate the nation-state, then do you leave it as a political weapon? This led to a consideration of questions around issues of strategic nationalism and the idea of the potential of the nation-state as a bottom up power. Group 1 also raised the idea of the limitations of the nation state as a unit of analysis being linked to the idea of the nation state being a bounded space that we want to imagine as sealed. This lead to subsequent discussion of the idea of the EU as trying to complicate the unitary nature of the nation state. Following this, the group introduced the idea of the known territory and ideas of the city state juxtaposed against the imagined community of the nation state to examine how the nation state may be limited as a category of analysis by the fact that is constantly either too big or too small. The discussion concluded on the evocative nature of the nation-state and the conclusion that the state-of-feeling surrounding the nation-state contributes to the problems of using the nation state as a useful category of analysis or unit of space.

Group 1 were then asked the question ‘what does ‘Britishness’ mean to them?‘. Discussion was ignited by dialogue describing how when this question has been asked previously, answers had usually involved stereotypes and consumption based activities. This raised additional questions surrounding the idea of ‘Britishness’ as a shared cultural way of life or ‘Britishness’ as an aesthetic. It was also noted how many responses to this question are intertwined with personal biographies such as personal migration histories.

Group 2 explored the question ‘can a national identity be constructed without an imagined outsider’. Group 2 deconstructed this question by asking what is truly meant by an outsider. They also considered what would happen if the question asked of an imagined other instead of outsider. The group then moved on to discuss issues such as if national identity is constructed or performed and if this performance of national identity can ultimately be disentangled from geographical imaginations. 

Group 2 were then to asked ‘Does the UK still serve a purpose‘. Following this, Group 2 noted how they felt that the answer to this question was dependant on what the group took the word ‘purpose’ to mean. Discussion then turned to potential imaginative future of the UK in a world of degrowth and ideas around the concept of the UK and territorial containers. Group 2 concluded on dialogue surrounding imaginary alternative futures such as giant bureaucracy and how these may effect embedded in ways of thinking about the world. 

Finally, Group 3 had to explore ‘when did Englishness/Britishness first begin’. In response to this question, discussion was ignited surrounding when the Act of Union was officially enacted, the historical background of the concept and the different incursions of the term throughout history. Group 3 then highlighted how this question is usually addressed by historians or politicians retrospectively. 

Discussion from this session ended with Group 3 contemplating the question of ‘is it possible to imagine a positive future post-Brexit’. Deliberation on the idea of a positive future post-Brexit was hard-pressed but amounted to ideas of damage limitation and the potential of the UK nation-state to move away from some of the EU’s neoliberal, bureaucratic problems. However, discussion ended on the point that the UK would be hard-pressed to change any of these problems following Brexit.

This commentary spurred a whole group conversation around how the lived experience of Europe, evidenced within Grand Tour narratives, has been enacted within contemporary Europe and how this may change in light of Brexit. Practices that cultivate Europe as a space such as the expat community and cross-European exchange schemes were used as evidence for this.

The session concluded on us all personally reflecting on how the issues discussed within the session may directly impact our research. We were challenged to summarise this in just 7 words! The 7 word sentences generated were extremely varied but highlighted the potential impact and influence the session had on surgeon’s research. We would like to thank Saskia and Jeremy for such a wonderful session.

Reflection

Image courtesy of Ed Brookes

Nina Willment

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