Research Context

SNNEC differentiates itself from other ScARF Frameworks because it does not propose guidelines on how to explore a clearly delimited field. Its focus­—on the connectedness of people and culture in the nineteenth century—is necessarily flexible in both chronological and spatial terms, a point that has been discussed in detail in Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Osterhammel, 2014: 45-113). This is the reason why the SNNEC framework is not identifying a corpus and a research programme, but, rather, piloting a relational approach as a framing device for nineteenth-century intercultural studies in Scotland. This relational approach considers a whole range of inter- and cross-cultural connections that encompass strong, documentable links as well as the pursuit of weak and intermittent links or the construction of connections through comparison. Its ambition is to build on, but move beyond, a more traditional history of cross-cultural transfer or exchanges and offer new global dimensions and perspectives.

Strong cross-cultural links have been well explored as a means of demonstrating the importance of Scottish contributions to nineteenth-century culture. Suffice to mention the influence on European Romanticism via Ossian and Scott; the long-lasting ways in which Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith shaped enquiry into human beings, the economy, and society; the participation in the exploration of a world unknown to the West (David Livingstone) and its colonisation, the global standardisation of time (Sandford Fleming), women’s activism in the anti-slavery movement (Frances Wright, Jane Smeal Wigham), enquiry into mathematics and astronomy (Mary Somerville) and the industrial development at a time when parts of Scotland became known as the ‘workshop of the British Empire’. Experiencing a lack of opportunities in a peripheral part of the British Isles, many people in Scotland developed a decidedly global, and particularly European, outlook. One of the consequences was that Scotland supplied ‘an astonishing share of the workforce needed for conquering and running the British Empire’ (Osterhammel, 2014: 166).

Nevertheless, the recognition of a demonstrable impact outwith Scotland does not necessarily translate into a prominent place for Scotland in broader narratives about the West in the nineteenth century. Situated at the periphery of a centre, Scotland remains all but invisible, providing an interesting twist on what Walter Mignolo has discussed as the ‘imperial difference’ that established France, England, and Germany as the imaginary heart of the Europe of Nations (2002, 158). Paradoxically, efforts to push Scotland into the limelight by insisting on its importance in these exchanges can be counterproductive. Mario Valdés has discussed this phenomenon with reference to the historiography of literature. Those histories that deal with what Valdés calls black holes—he uses gay and lesbian literary historical studies or the historical study of women’s writing from earlier periods as examples—tend to be perceived as firmly located in the territory of counter-histories; on the whole, they still tend to be add-ons to mainstream history rather than integral parts thereof (Valdés 2002, 65), although this is gradually changing.

A relational approach that takes a broader view of connectedness can sidestep this dilemma inasmuch as it starts from the ways in which cultural phenomena are entangled, illuminating a bigger whole. This is reflected in the very name of our initiative, SNNEC—the Scottish Network for Nineteenth Century European Cultures. Its perspective on the nineteenth century is shaped by a shared location: Scotland. However, this does not mean that Scotland must always occupy centre stage in the research itself. Depending on the object of study, it can fade into the background, come to the fore or be concealed altogether. Although it may appear counterintuitive at first, it is precisely the study of ‘weak networks’ (Dimock, 2018: 589-90) as well as the construction of connections via comparison (Ginger, 2018) that makes it possible for a more complex understanding of nineteenth-century culture and its locations to emerge.

This mechanism of knowledge production has been developed and theorised in the context of Comparative Literature. It can be encapsulated in the deceptively simple question of ‘What can this tell us about that?’ (Saussy 2015: 75), a question whose wide-reaching implications the author illustrates with the following example:

Chinese Landscape Poetry Asian Inspired Wallpaper for Tea House. ©Hanmero Wallcoverings

To compare Chinese landscape poetry with British landscape poetry risks dullness; but to ask what Chinese landscape poetry does or has done at different moments of that culture, and to compare the results of that query with what British landscape poetry does or has done, results in a complex group of internally linked meanings from which robust accounts of function and value, not to omit beauty, can emerge (Saussy 2015: 74).