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  • Commemoration, Nation Narration, and Colonial Historiography in Postcolonial Denmark
  • Lars Jensen

The contested issue of colonialism and its legacy is attracting a rising range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary responses. History (and historiography) has traditionally dominated the field, but in recent decades, other approaches—in some cases overlapping with the research territory of history—have broadened, and challenged, history's perceived monopoly on characterizing colonialism primarily as an "epochal" phenomenon.1 That history generally deals with phenomena as epochal is hardly surprising, yet such an emphasis leads to inadequate consideration of the legacy and the repercussions that colonialism has for our contemporary times. The new disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches that are interested in the question of the hereditary aspects of colonialism should therefore be welcomed. Addressing colonialism and its aftermath is to ask an interdisciplinary question about how and why commemoration remains predominantly Eurocentric both in its geographical orientation and in the way it conceptualizes subjectivity and (historical) agency.

I will begin the article by discussing selected study areas that all concern themselves with the issue of coming to terms with the legacy [End Page 13] of colonialism. I am thinking here of heritage studies, commemoration studies, and memory studies.2 They do not constitute a comprehensive list of "new" approaches, but belong to the spectrum of fields whose practitioners would consider themselves as having some form of relationship with history or, perhaps better, historiography. My brief overview of the fields and their relationship with colonial history as an academic discursive field is influenced by my own interest in postcolonialism, whiteness studies, race and racism studies, and decolonial studies as (self-)reflective fields of critical intervention. From this initial perusal, I move on to consider how such approaches may have more specific repercussions for the discussion of colonialism as it relates to European (nation-imperial) history. This is followed by a discussion of the Danish case, with particular reference to Danish colonial historiography and to current attempts at challenging the amnesia/repression/nostalgia/ benevolence/exceptionalism and blindness discourses that have historically dominated and arguably continue as prevalent forms of nation narration about Denmark's imperial past and post-imperial present. Most of the terms listed above represent self-evident invitations to engage a critical re-examination of established ways of narrating the nation's imperial past, but the term "exceptionalism" requires a little more unfolding for the uninitiated. It refers to an increasing body of critical literature on post-imperial nation narration that points to the inconsistency of condemning colonialism broadly—because of its association with genocide, slavery, racism, and dispossession—while simultaneously arguing for narratives of national exceptionalism that somehow do not entail this catalogue of atrocities. Exceptionalism establishes national colonial narratives as benevolent in contrast to the general unspecified backdrop of cruelty and racism informing colonialism more broadly (see Kristín Loftsdóttir and Jensen 2012). The second half of the article examines the more specific implications of an exceptionalism critique in relation to Denmark. It does so by homing in on the broader academic (and public) debate over Danish colonialism, which may finally (and belatedly) have reached an unstoppable momentum with the exhibitions and public debates held in connection with the centennial of the sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States. [End Page 14]

Surveying the Fields

Memory studies is the broadest of the fields considered here. Its proliferation can be measured by the number of overviews published in recent years—including Routledge International Handbook of Memory Studies (Tota and Hagen 2016); A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies (Erll and Nünning 2010); and The Collective Memory Reader (Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Levy 2011). Given its scope, memory studies necessarily encompasses a range of approaches, some of which exist in more productive or unproductive tension with the research practices of history than others.3 In spite of its shared interests, however, the rise of memory studies is inseparable from its premise that conventional history4—with its reliance on the written archive and its creed of showing the past "as it really was"—has built-in limitations with wide-ranging consequences, as pointed out by, among others, Pakier and Stråth:

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