Conceptualizing cultural debt at Europe’s Northern and Southern periphery

Stefan Nygård (University of Helsinki)

This study looks at debates on cultural debt in the context of networks of European intellectuals and policy-makers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. One of the outcomes of the major improvements in technology and communications in this period was a deepening of the trans-national or trans-local civil society in which these debates took place. While the intensified interconnections clearly succeeded in drawing extended portions of the social elites closer together, it is less obvious to what extent the powerful othering mechanisms at play in discourses on cultural debt were erased or enforced by this development. Looking at such questions mainly within a European framework and from the perspective of the region’s geographical margins, Italy and Scandinavia, the research pays attention to how cultural debt was invoked in relation to overlapping debates on North/South, centre/periphery and the social question. Conceptualizations of cultural debt were conditioned by a number of factors, including the way in which individual actors and groups from peripheral geo-cultural spaces challenged the universalizing claims of the centres, mediated between core and periphery, and/or formed alliances with dominant elites in the centres. I explore these general questions by looking empirically at connections along the North-South axis between Italy and Scandinavia in the context of three historical moments: between Italian and German national unification, at the turn of the twentieth century, and in the inter-war period.