Iceland-Denmark – a Crypto-Colonial Relation?

During a stay in Iceland 2007-2008 I was interested in examining traces of, and participate in a discussion of the consequences of the long relationship between Denmark and Iceland. In this context, I tried to get in contact with a department of post-colonial studies. For a while I was sent back and forth between well-meaning academics who could neither confirm or deny the existence of such a research department. Often the conversation ended with an agreement that “it must be here somewhere.” In the end I was put in contact with a professor of literature who could assure me that such a department did not exist. When I asked him about his assessment of why this field of research did not have its own center or department, his response was that, in his oppinion, Icelanders at the time were more concerned with the future than with the past. This reply only strengthened my interest.

A lot has happened with the perceptions of Icelandic history from the time when I began investigating its possible post-colonial elements in 2008. Both in Denmark and Iceland reactions were mostly characterized by scepticism to the relevance of such an investigation. This is likely due to the fact that Iceland has not had an clear status as Danish colony and in analyzing the historic and current relation I find that Michael Herzfeld’s theory of crypto-colonial relations comes close to capturing its complexity: “The world is no longer made up of colonizers and colonized alone, nor was it ever so simply split” (Herzfeld 2002: 922).

In my work I use Herzfeld’s modifications of points from post-colonial theory and simultaneous retention of a critique of Eurocentrism in the Danish-Icelandic context. This corresponds with Herzfeld’s encouragement to look at the category of the crypto-colonial, although modelled on Greece and Thailand, as an open category with a focus on local complexity and internal paradoxes of European models of dominance. A crypto-colony is a country, which has not been an actual colony, but has what Herzfeld call a “symbolic as well as material dependence on intrusive colonial power.” (Herzfeld 2010: 173)

Most crypto-colonies have political statuses that have spurred the use of an unambiguous nationalist rhetoric by European example. It has to some extent internalized a Eurocentric conceptualizations of its past and gets recognition through positive images of the past (such as ancient Greece, the Icelandic saga tradition and a thousand years old parliamentary practice) rather than via features of contemporary society. In external representations the Crypto-colonies are viewed as bufferzones between the West and the rest and as being ”not ‘really modern’” (Herzfeld 912: 2002). Iceland has been a cultural and ethnic outpost on the border of the Arctic area and the Danish colony of Greenland. This position as a bufferzone in the European periphery has had shifting connotations and has influenced internal and external ideas about Iceland.

The conflict between the idea of ​​the eternal nation, embedded in Icelandic nationalism, and the actual absence of political sovereignty means that the focal point of the non-sovereign nation became a negotiation with the political supremacy about the validity and free development of what is conceptualized as national culture and heritage.

Herzfeld emphasizes that the cultural ideal associated with respectively civlitá and polis, do not dominate in all countries, but that in several places Eurocentric influence has turned into a fear – especially amongst the elite – of being chategorized as barbarians – as has been the case in Iceland until the late 20th century. In Herzfeld’s theory about crypto-colonies terms such as “western”, “European”, “the West” do not appear in their actual complexity. Following up on J. N. Pieterse’s point about a complex and plural West, it must be emphasized that Iceland, despite being a country which has generally been included in the category West, has had a crypto-colonial position. Thus, Iceland can be viewed as an example of internal Western crypto-colonialism. For Iceland it has been a question of being identified with either a possible position of power – as  (Western) civilization – or a position as colonizable barbarians. Iceland seems to have been lying on the border between these two positions – a position that has aslo been exploited in strategic self-exotification.

The crypto-colonial optics can help to expose the power relations through an analysis of the notions of past and future, which is e.g. reflected in landscape depictions, branding, history writing etc. In light of the economic and political crisis in Iceland after the crash in 2008 questions are being raised as to whether the causes of the crisis in Iceland are to be found in the deep structures of Icelandic culture. The crypto-coloninal perspective can contribute to an increased understanding of the importance of Iceland’s relationship with foreign powers.

PhD research on the subject

In my PhD thesis from 2012 I investigate implications of the relation between Denmark and Iceland on conceptualizations of Icelandic national identity, as this has been expressed in images of Icelandic landscape. The ambition, which has motivated this focus, was to cultivate and develop the hitherto limited focus on post- and crypto-colonial elements in Icelandic cultural history.

Here the crypto-colonial approach highlights significations of time, place and space in the imagery of the period in question. The definition of images is broad and thus inspired by the theories of W. J. T. Mitchell (1986), which has allowed me to compare lyrical, literary and social images to visual landscape images from both Iceland and Denmark. This enables the exposure of general structures in the cultural field. The images are analysed by means of an interdisciplinary theoretical field, which includes theories of visuality, collective memory, art theory, postcolonial theory, critical approaches to Eurocentrism, and imagology.

This period is characterized by nationalist currents, resulting in a complex disruption in the relationship between Denmark and Iceland. One of the pressing questions that relate to both countries has been how the cultural border between the collective internal and external has been drawn. The analyses are continuously related to the past centuries of Danish-Icelandic cultural history, and the study therefore contributes to a discussion of the historical role of the Danish Commonwealth and as well as its continuing importance for the countries.

The crypto-colonial perspective allows the ambiguous dynamics between the positioning as spiritual and cultural source on the one hand and economic and political outsider on the other to stand out. This clarifies the consequences of the emphasis on Iceland’s distant past and of the utopian, dystopian, and heterotopic connotations of its geographical positioning in modern conceptualisations of identity.


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