Crypto-Colonial Iceland

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.

Otherness as branding strategy for literature and nature

Posted on April 8, 2013

As countless tourists each year get aquainted with Iceland, and the visual and written representations have placed the country in international consciousness, Iceland has become a heterotopia (Foucault 1984) rather than the utopia and dystopia of earlier times. However, there are elements of radical otherness, the utopian and dystopian, in Icelandic advertisements from the famous clothing company 66° Norður as well as in several of the pictures from the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011 where Iceland was the guest of honor under the title: Sagenhaftes Island.


(See the branding strategy here:

Depictions of Iceland show unfamiliar sites that appear as heterotopias reflecting the norms of the surrounding Western societies. In imagological logic, this means that in the image of the other (Iceland) self images are revealed and vice versa. From a heterotopic position inside the reflection, one can come back to oneself and ones position in the world.

In Herzfeld’s theory of crypto-colonies the attitude of external parties or countries to the community is crucial, since there is an unequal power balance as well as an internalization of external ideas in the crypto-colony. Herzfeld’s optics highlights spatio-temporal axes, which have often placed the crypto-colonies as peripheral buffer zones or geographic outposts on the border of the »others« and associated with a distant past, while the dominant countries were associated with civilizational progress and a geographical center. The racial hierarchy and developmental logic of imperialism has been the foundation of power relations in the last two centuries. Especially in the 19th and 20th centuries Icelandic culture and self image was very much influenced by a fundamental division between those associated with the civilized world and those associated with a peripheral position (e.g. as indiginous peoples) within the imperialist system and having to navigate between the two. The crypto-colonial approach exposes the aspects of what is refered to as western culture as an entity characterized by inner mechanisms of exclusion and hierarchies.

Generally, depictions and descriptions of Iceland from an external (western) point of view have been characterised by a curious mixture of identification and exotification. Furthermore Iceland has been pendulating between what Bernhard Giesen has called being either inside or outside of a collective[1] – here of the Western World.  A common trait between crypto-colonialism, imagology and Giesen’s theory is a point of departure in Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness as a mutually retained confirmation of existence between consciousnesses and the importance of external recongition: »Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is it exists only in being aknowledged.«[2] This view is expressed in the chapterHerrschaft und Knechtschaft in Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807). From this point of view Iceland has inhabited a position with similarities to that of Greece as both center and periphery in the construction of European – not least Danish – cultural history and self-perception.

Recent official self-promotion that has been well received internationally e.g. in connection with the strategies of Visit Iceland and the presentation of Icelandic literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair seems to testify to an Icelandic ambivalence in relation to being, respectively, consumed or forgotten by Europe. The association of Icelandic cultural products with forces of nature reflects old exoticist and vitalist notions of Iceland that are taken into favor and instrumentalized. One example is the logo of Sagenhaftes Island showing a book merged with a waterfall. In general the representations draw on the ancient tradition in European culture of viewing Iceland as a place associated with myths, Saga literature and explosive natural power. The position of being associated – even in an indirect manner – with indigenous or nature peoples was famously and strongly rejected to by the Icelandic Student’s Association in their objection to Icelandic artifacts being exhibited next to those from Greenland and the West Indies at the colonial exhition in the Tivoli Gardens in 1905.[1]

As often before Iceland ends on the edge of the familiar in the book fair representations – as an alternative space. This strategy is known from the Icelandic tourism industry campaigns directed against external parties. On the English edition of the official homepage at the time there were several examples of Iceland being depicted as heterotopia and as a contrast to civilization. One example was the image of tourists in a glacial landscape shrouded in fog with the caption from the NY Times: »It’s an unearthly paradise in Iceland«. Here the country is not only placed in a chronological logic as being pre-civlized, with the reference to paradise, but also remote from the world we know, by being »unearthly«. Today the renewed website has not moved far away from this image in its description of Icelandic landscape as being: “pure, unpolluted and truly magical.” (

– the emphasis on purity is an other story, which I will be following closely.

Read more about the Frankfurt Book Fair in my article (in Icelandic) in Ritid: 


[1] See J. Y. Jóhannsson, 2003

[2] Herzfeld 2002, 902

[1] Giesen 1999

[2] Hegel 1998 [1807], 111.




Skærmbillede 2013-10-07 kl. 22.34.37

On the 4th the international symposium Claiming the North: (Re-)territorializing the “Westnordic Arctic” at the University of Iceland arranged by Katla Kjartansdóttir, Kristinn Schram and myself issues of theoretical approaches to national and regional narratives in the (sub) Arctic area were discussed by cross-disciplinary panels.



With Professor Michael Herzfeld (Harvard) as one of the keynotes it was possible to follow the first meeting between the founder of crypto-colonial theory and leading scholars in Icelandic cultural studies. The discussion continued on a closed meeting on the 5th where issues concerning ambiguities, powerlessness and geo-political aspirations in the region in the making were discussed.


The crypto-colonial perspective is catching on among scholars and there has been an increasing interest in looking into what I have proposed to be crypto-colonial features in past and present Icelandic political discourse as well as in the arts. I am following this development enthusiastically and will be publishing more on related subjects in the near future.

Our joint project Denmark and the New North Atlantic was represented with papers on Danish exceptionalism, Icelandic phantasies of colonizing Greenland in the 20th century, and how narratives about the intertwined past with Denmark stands in the way for  discussions about certain political issues in Greenland.

My talk was based on a forthcoming article about the influence of old narratives on current Icelandic environmental policy and branding:

Since the heated debates of the independece movement the Danish-Icelandic relation has not been high on the agendas of either country. The Icelandic crisis of the recent years has caused increasing interest in reinvestigations of longterm implications of the past as Danish dependency on official and artistic attempts to position Iceland in an international context within shifting frameworks of the last centuries. Versions of the national history have been shaped and functionalized in order to influence present self-understanding and even the nation brandIn these processes ancient myths about the North are being evoked that contribute to Iceland’s complex position as center and periphery. This position as an international heterotopia and wilderness par excellence has crypto-colonial traits and causes there to be a large gap between the country’s official image and the views expressed e.g. in critical contemporary art showing dirty sides of Iceland’s pristine nature and image as provider of pure energy.

The symposium was supported by CAPS (Háskóli Íslands), Edda center of Excellence and Denmark and the New North Atlantic.


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