Identity and the Internet in
the Flemish in
Research Proposal by
It seems to me that we are now
faced with an epistemic shift: our approach to space has changed considerably,
from one of balance and security to one of constantly shifting and uncertain
virtuality. We can thank multimedia
communication technology, virtual conceptions of space and time, the
homogenising face of globalisation and other bugbears of the post-modern
era. The question now is whether
individual cultures will be able to adapt to this massive epistemic shift. I hope to demonstrate that the Flemish have
been adapting well to this change, seeing they have been able to become a part
of a number of different real and virtual 'worlds', including the much feared
global village, the extended geographical and national sense of Europe, and
still retain a strong sense of self.
This will become clear when we look at
After ten years of living in
Despite all the factors which play
against the Flemish, such as a rapidly diminishing landscape and a sense of
insecurity about the worth of their own linguistic expression, they have a very
strong sense of self. They are able to
retain this identity despite the growing influence of both globalisation
and the creation of the European nation.
European nationalism is an important factor in this regard. Europeans are finding themselves in a new
world which is sending strong nationalistic messages; we are Europeans before
we are Belgians or Flamings. This
pan-European tendency is receiving expression in general policy and is
particularly noticeable in
Before the internet a sense of
nationality was easier to maintain as one had constant multimedial interaction
with an environment which supported the complex array of behaviour types and
discourses. Many today, however, fear
the globalisation bugbear. Television,
although not interactive in a way comparable to the internet, is a form of 'multimedial'
communication which helps combat the general dread of homogenised cultural
change. Internet is playing a similar
Belgian nationalism, as you can see above, does exist (even if that may be to a small extent). It is easier to find people who are Belgians part of the time when that seems appropriate, for example when they are on holidays and have intercultural encounters with foreigners. It is not difficult for many Belgian people to feel both Belgian and Flemish (or Wallonian), as these are in any case rather vague ideas created by a complex interweaving of cultural discourses. The Belgian government, as they are demonstrating through their current advertisement campaigns and marketing strategies, are attempting to make people feel more Belgian more of the time. At the moment the situation is so volatile it is difficult to say which way it will go.
Fighting for the right to be educated in their mother language was perhaps the most difficult of all battles fought by the Flemish. It still remains a highly problematic point in this culture. Although the Flemish quickly defend their language if questioned, their defence often hides an insecurity about the language's actual worth, i.e. through social inculcation they have been brought up to experience their linguistic behaviour as somehow of a lesser value. On Flemish television there is always an uncomfortable atmosphere when a Flemish person makes a confession about this hidden secret: we speak an ugly or unpleasant language and/or French is far more attractive to hear and speak. The Flemish community is trying to reverse this trend over the internet. Below you will find a description of Flemish Dutch taken from the central website of the Flemish community. You will notice that they refer to it as Europe's 'sixth' language: here they are referring to the fact that they are still fighting for the language to be accepted within the European union which still only officially recognises English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.
E u r o p e ' s s i x t h l a n g u a g e
The official language of
To define what it is to be Flemish is not an easy question, as with any other culture. A national identity on its own is at best an ideal, and each Fleming has his or her own world view and interpretation of that ideal. Although it is dangerous to over-generalise, it is true that the ideal receives expression at least to a small degree in each individual to the extent that an overall image of national folk can be found, and it is upon this generalisation that a national image is formed. It is impossible for me to adequately describe using only words a complex multimedial given which involves the whole way a folk acts and thinks. There are, however, means which the Flemish can use to express this image or at least to participate in some way with their culture. Television, itself an important form of mass-communication, is a particularly significant medium in this regard. There are many television shows which represent the quirky and very individual Flemish episteme. One of the most important is Man Bijt Hond. This programme is involved with the idiosyncracies of the Flemish culture, showing daily before the news on one of the national channels a range of highly individual but at the same time recognisable fragments of life mostly in Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium. As an outsider I found it hard to relate to this programme, and it is only now after many years of getting used to the Flemish culture that I realise how important programmes like this actually are to the formation of a sense of common being. The emblem below has been taken from the 'Man Bijt Hond' website. The image of the dog is included in the titles of the programme. 'Man Bijt Hond' actually means man bites dog, and is referring to the programmes elusive and sometimes nonsensical content which all the same represents the Flemish as they really are. Although the programme itself is not interactive, the internet plays an important role in forming the content of the show. Flemish visitors to the site are able to participate actively by reacting to requests. When I last visited the site the organisers of the programme were planning to do a segment of the show on poetry, and so the site encouraged its visitors to provide them with material. The Flemish, then, are able to actively interact and contribute to a show which plays an important role in creating a sense of Flemish identity.
'Man Bijt Hond' emblem
[Man Bites Dog]
[every weeday after the 7:00 PM news]
Waarom hebben taxichauffeurs de grootste hersenen? Kan het Vlaamse literaire kruim de grondwet spannender maken? Waarom is de fluit van een scheidsrechter zo scherp? Dat zijn dingen die Man bijt hond interesseren.
[Why do taxi drivers have bigger brains? Can the top Flemish literary figures make the [Flemish] constitution more exciting? Why is a referee's whistle so sharp? Those are things which interest Man Bijt Hond.]
The text above demonstrates the idiosyncratic nature of this programme, and how it's appearance on the web can help to assist the general feeling of Flemish identity. It is interesting to note that this programme is also played weekly on Dutch television. They watch it, however, with subtitles, which is as far as I am concerned more symbolic of cultural distances than real ones; the speakers on the show are perfectly comprehensible to the Dutch without subtitles.
On the other side of the coin we have the extreme right Flemish party: the Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block). Its members are infamous for their unfortunate abuse of history to support racist policies. For example, one of their main obsessions is with the Nazi-collaboration. Frasers notes that they believe "Hitler couldn't be wholly bad - because he had espoused, briefly, the matter of Flemish language right" and that "it had been wrong to persecute the Flemish Nazis, because they were only expressing the submerged national sensibility which was theirs by right" (Fraser 256). They cater also to a Flemish desire to maintain its fragile sense of national identity (but for all the wrong reasons).
It is clear that
On a Vlaams Blok website set up and maintained by a youth group within the party, the 'safety' aspect played an important role. Using the latest flash-based animation technology the interaction with the site involves moving skulls with warnings about illegal drugs entering the country thanks to the dreaded Arab, Turk or Moroccan 'visitors'. The sites have chat rooms where one can ask questions and get involved in debates over Vlaams Blok policy. It seemed to me more like a chance to indoctrinate very right-wing ideas. Below you will find the 'debate' section of the central homesite which turned out really to be a chance for the major politicians to express their radical political views. The translation of the debate topic is the 'vulgar safe sex campaign'.
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 The reasoning behind this political motivation will be elucidated further on.
translations are by
© May 2008 Nachtschimmen
Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades,