Interview: We may learn from the cartoon crisis

On April 5, CESAU inaugurated the book series Sociologiske Studier (sociological studies) with wine, peanuts, and presentations by authors and editors of the three new books that initiate the series. Carsten Stage's Tegningekrisen - som mediebegivenhed og danskhedskamp (The cartoon crisis - as media event and struggle for "Danishness") is the first volume of the series. CESAU have had a talk with the author about the cartoon crisis, Danish identity, and chaos-generating visual communication. And, last but not least, about which experiences we may take with us after the cartoon crisis.

By Kristine Frahm

"Visual communication has the capacity to travel incredibly fast and gain global attention. But also to create global chaos, "Carsten Stage tells us concerning the communicative effect of the cartoons. "One must be highly conscious of how one uses images. This is part of what the crisis may teach us".

Carsten Stage is a lecturer at Scandinavian Languages and Literature at Aarhus University. Ordinarily, he teaches the subjects Culture and Media as well as  Culture of Events. In late 2009, he defended his Ph.D. project: "Et andet Danmark: Konstruktionen af national identitet i danske medier under tegningekrisen" (Another Denmark: The construction of national identity in Danish media during the cartoon crisis). It is this dissertation which forms the basis of his new book about the 12 cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten, which, the following year, gave birth to fires, demonstrations, agitational speeches concerning freedom of speech, and fear of terror.

Danish identity

"Danishness is not one thing. It does not have one meaning, but lots of partial meanings, and it is a category of identity which is constantly up for negotiation," says Carsten Stage. "The Mohammed crisis", "the caricature crisis", "The prophet affair", or "the cartoon case" – as Carsten Stage writes in his book, the event has many names. It has also been treated and interpreted in innumerable news broadcasts, articles, documentaries, visual works of art, and books.

Carsten Stage's book particularly differs from the previous contributions by focusing on those consequences of the crisis concerned with identity. The book is the first to suggest ways in which the crisis affects the making of national identity, and it argues that this is an important perspective in the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the crisis. The debate about the cartoons may tell us something about how Danish identity is understood and provided with meaning at this present moment.

The book approaches the crisis from the perspective of a theory of discourse. Carsten Stage shows how the debate concerning the crisis is influenced by three discourses or categories of Danishness, which in turn are allowed to structure the book, dividing it into three sections focusing on Danish rationalism, primordialism, and altruism, respectively. In the media texts analysed, including the TV news coverage from February 2006 as well as documentary projects about the crisis, these three ways of understanding Danishness become manifest.

In the first one, Danish is thought of as belonging to a rational tradition. Here, Danes are regarded as individuals who are able to separate religion from politics. Primordialism links Danishness with lineage: If you are not born Danish, according to this discourse, you will never become a Dane. A final view of nationality, whose voice was heard in connection with the debate about the crisis, focuses on tolerance and liberal-mindedness as keywords for defining Danishness.

"As long as people talk about Danishness and understand themselves as Danish, a Danish identity exists. But it exists as a complex sum of all the various ideas or discussions concerning that which is national. It is not clear-cut or given in advance", says Carsten Stage.

The national and globalisation

One might think that globalisation and the national would be opposites. But globalisation also contributes to making nationality a relevant topic of debate, as places and nations become visibly complex precisely because of globalisation.

Globalisation entails our speaking much more about Danishness these days than we did earlier. This is due to the fact that globalisation makes visible the cultural complexity of Danish society, which in turn provokes a lot of debate concerning the right connection between values and place", says Carsten Stage. "When the citizens of Denmark looked, and indeed were, more similar, this debate was less urgent. And because it is now apparent that the citizens are culturally different from each other, much more interest is taken in creating cultural uniformity or homogeneity."

Three important lessons

It is now close to five years since the cartoon crisis reached its climax in February 2006. But the crisis is still of concern today. Carsten Stage's book suggests ways in which we may avoid future mistakes and regard nationality under a new perspective which takes into account the complexity of our globalised world. In the interview with CESAU, Carsten Stage lays out three particularly important areas in which we may learn from the crisis.

The first one concerns visual strategy of communication. Imagine that Jyllands-Posten had, in 2005, made a similar provocative statement about the prophet Mohammed in words only. According to Carsten Stage, the written word would not have had the same effect as the image. "The point is that images travel much more easily than words. An image is immediately readable across national borders and cultures, as opposed to language, which must first be translated", says Carsten Stage.

Secondly, however, visual communication is not unproblematic: "Images instantly yield meaning, but they may also yield a vast amount of meanings, all depending on the background and opinions of the recipient. Some, for instance, find the cartoons to be about freedom of speech, whereas others read them as an unambiguous insult," he continues. One may, of course, attempt to take this into account. For instance by being careful and concrete in one's communication through images. One may choose communicative forms that correspond to the message one wishes to convey.

Finally, the media coverage of the crisis shows us how the news media often reduce the complexity of events for the viewer. News journalism creates order in a chaotic world, and may therefore omit important perspectives. If, for instance, one paints a black-and-white picture showing that all Muslims are angry at all Danes, the nuances are missing.

"There were, of course, many in the Middle East who thought the cartoons were problematic, but, as reception studies of the crisis have shown, this does not mean that everybody in the Middle East holds antidemocratic views or believes that Danish embassies must be burned", says Carsten Stage. Carsten Stage hopes that the book can result in broader awareness among its readers concerning the national as an ambiguous concept, which nobody has the sole right to define.

Sociologiske studier makes research available outside of AU

The book series, which includes Carsten Stage's Tegningekrisen as its first volume, is called Sociologiske Studier (Sociological studies). And the use of the plural form is quite deliberate, Carsten Bagge Laustsen explains in his presentation at the book reception on April 5. A single sociology does not exist. At Aarhus University, sociology is characterised precisely by thriving together with other fields in a multiplicity of sociological shapes and colours. This is also characteristic of Sociologiske Studier as a book series broadly embracing the sociological field. At the same time, the book series will be an opportunity for for the research groups of CESAU to have future projects published, and for university research to reach a broader audience.

The two other books that have so far been released in the series are Tørklædet som tegn (The headscarf as sign) by Inge Degn and Kirsten Molly Søholm (ed.) and Planlægning i oplevelsessamfundet (Planning in the experience society) by Anne Lorentzen and Søren Smidt Jensen (ed.). The three books initiating the series have in common their concern with current societal issues or social dynamics. The books contribute to a number of ongoing discussions about the Mohammed cartoons, Danish and Muslim identity, as well as the tendency towards a society increasingly governed by experiences.

"These are topics about which people have an opinion, and the books may contribute to raising the bar in certain debates taking place in the media at this moment. I think it is great if university research can contribute to this", Carsten Bagge Laustsen says.

From PhD thesis to book

”Book retailers run away screaming whenever they see a PhD thesis, because it smells to much of university", says Carsten Bagge Laustsen, head of CESAU and initiator of the book series. "but the Ph.D. theses contain an amazing amount of original research, and we would really like to bring more of this outside the university."

Carsten Stage's Tegningekrisen is an example of an academic Ph.D. thesis taking a more reader friendly form.

Concerning the process from PhD thesis to book, Carsten Stage explains that it is tedious work. After having worked on a project for 3-4 years, it can be demanding and difficult to continue that work. This task has taken Carsten Stage another six months. "One has to be motivated to keep sifting through one's already concluded project and receive new reader responses. And if one attempts to reach a broader audience, one must of course be willing to cut out sections of the thesis which may have taken a very long time to write.

For instance, it is useless for the reader to have to cross a huge theoretical mountain before reaching the analyses," Carsten Stage says. But he is convinced that the work will pay off. "It is amazing that the research finds its way out. This will be something which somebody can read, relate to, and make use of.

"Visual communication has the capacity to travel incredibly fast and gain global attention. But also to create global chaos," Carsten Stage tells us concerning the communicative effect of the cartoons. "One must be highly conscious of how one uses images. This is part of what the crisis may teach us".