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  • Dualistic Colonial Experiences and the Ruins of Coloniality
  • Kristín Loftsdóttir


In 1930, Iceland celebrated the anniversary of the establishment of its Parliament at Þingvellir 1,000 years earlier. The aspirations for the festival were ambitious, especially considering that on the eve of the twentieth century, Iceland was populated by less than 100,000 people, and towns had only emerged a few decades earlier, as well as that a large number of people had emigrated to North America to escape the harsh conditions in Iceland. The planning of the festival itself started 4 years ahead of the event. An Austrian conductor was hired to set up Iceland's first symphony to play at the festival, and demonstrations of Iceland's leading industries and arts were prepared. Special importance was placed on inviting foreign dignitaries to the anniversary and, as the Icelandic media at the time vividly reflects, there was great anxiety over whether the festival would succeed in impressing these guests. The frequent reference to the festival as the "judgment day of Iceland" indicates the urgency of the matter, where the event was conceptualized almost as a test that the country had to pass in order to prove itself as a modernizing nation deserving of full independence (Rastrick 2013). To understand its importance, the festival has to be positioned within the emphasis of the era on showing the rest of the world that Iceland had a glorious past and that, while Iceland was currently poor, it had earlier contributed to "world culture." In fact, some even claimed that this now impoverished country had in the past contributed to [End Page 31] the foundations of European culture just like ancient Greece (Rastrick 2013; see Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson's article "'Icelandic Putridity'" in this issue of Scandinavian Studies). The festival thus constituted an attempt to assert Iceland's position in relation to other nations—notably, what we would today refer to as the Global North—by reclaiming and making visible Iceland's past glory as an indicator of Iceland's prospects in the future. This rhetoric employed by the organizers was deeply embedded in modernization as a project, to show Iceland as a modernizing nation, which in fact also meant that the country needed to be disassociated from "non-modernity."

I start with this story because it indicates the impossibility of understanding postcolonial positions of some countries without analytically recognizing what I see as "duality" in their engagements with colonialism. In the case of Iceland, the importance of the celebration to the general public and the painful anxieties and desires of the organizers are incomprehensible without the recognition that Iceland was under Danish rule at the time, eagerly seeking full independence. Simultaneously, Icelandic understandings of modernity and Iceland's weak position as a modern nation at the time implicitly and explicitly refer to other colonized populations and accept the racist discourse of the time. Moreover, Icelandic people participated in settler-colonialism through their migration and settlement in the Americas (Brydon 2001; Eyford 2006; Bertram 2018; Eyrún Eyþórsdóttir and Kristín Loftsdóttir 2016). More broadly, my discussion seeks to emphasize the importance of analyzing the nuances of colonialism in attempts to understand the postcolonial present. Ann Laura Stoler (2008) importantly asks how we can detect the "ruins" of colonialism in our postcolonial present, but, with that concept, her intention is to move away from the more intangible "legacy" toward the various ways in which colonialism affects our present. Also, with Europe again and again being evoked as a point of reference (Bhambra 2011), we have to ask: What kind of European subject does our imperial and colonial past refer to and create, and how are different European subjects positioned within our postcolonial present? As I have claimed earlier, one important avenue for understanding the meaning of Europe is to analyze places that have been constructed as marginal or peripheral within Europe—places that have felt the need to "prove" their membership in the hierarchical community of Europeans. These are not only interesting as local examples in themselves, but they provide a lens to further understand how notions of Europe generate sets of meanings that are...


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