A response to the Wikipedia entry on Jantelagen (“Du ska inte tro att du a nagon.”):

Sandemose was incredibly critical of Jantelagen, and from a pro-inequality perspective, Jantelagen is a cultural reflex that seems to threaten to stifle our beloved “Great Men” (read: our own impression of ourselves). Yet, obviously, the small Scandinavian countries have a long, vast history of high economic, scientific, political, militaristic, education, environmental, and cultural innovation and achievement. The critique of Jantelagen itself is part of Jantelagen culture–a cultural system of rigorously checking people’s narcissistic pretensions to monopolize power. And what exercise is more appropriate in such a frenetically self-aggrandizing yet deeply social species of Great Ape? Although it’s always annoying to have to deal with criticism, I very much doubt Jantelagen culture is stifling in the long haul. Look at its opposite–high-inequality, narcissistic Anglo-american culture, where elites and their retainers are never compelled to confront and handle the idea that they might have gone way off track. Now there is social, political and economic rot.

In the context of a social species, a systematic lack of accountability is stifling, and crippling. Criticism isn’t stifling, beyond the immediate shame response. What can be overdone if not exercised in moderation, and is certainly not rare in high-inequality Anglo-american societies, is shame.

On Jantelagen and immigration:

The English-language Wikipedia entry treats Jantelagen as a threat to the Ayn Randian Anglo-american cultural ideal of the “Great Man” of business, because Anglo-americans are more concerned with the deference “due” to the capitalist class. However, Jantelagen is actually about how Scandinavians respond to the autistic introduction of foreign culture by immigrants who are prone to naturalize and decontextualize the “superiority” of their native “common sense” or technical patrimony.

Here again, I think Sandemose’s critique is excessive, inadequately reflexive. In fact, incorporating new, non-acculturated members is a real problem–for society is the ongoing culmination of class and other conflicts. When new denizens are introduced, they can be used as a sort of “shock troops” to undermine the accumulated social contract hard-won in a region. In this respect, Jantelagen refutes the naive approach that fails to see society in social terms, but only in market terms (eg. immigrants as merely new workers or new sources of capital…or bringers of new techniques). Jantelagen’s approach, although adding an additional burden onto the backs of immigrants–who are admittedly already overburdened, forces perhaps the most crucial responsibility: requiring social, historical awareness and learning where the immigrant would be inclined to tune out the immigration society, perhaps only to be used as an economic or political pawn by opportunistic factions within the society. That is, Jantelagen demands that new members of society first and foremost recognize that society is a social production with a material and cultural history. 

Why the hell not?

Jantelagen is arguably a preferable response to introducing newcomers to a society, when compared with what we blithely conceive of as “cosmopolitanism.” The kernel for this insight first came to me when I was forced to read some truly block-headed anthropology back in grad school in the late-1990s: Appadurai and Canclini. Never before have you seen more parochial elitism dressed up as “cosmopolitanism,” as these anthropologists attempted to reductively classwash neoliberal immigration as a fun, pastich-y, jetting setting global cocktail party.

What is cosmopolitanism, as we currently understand it? It’s aught more than parochialism, usually with a generous helping of consumerism–within the confines of elite networks. Jantelagen is much more sociologically grounded.

[to be continued]

A side note on Jantelagen and marketing:

Anglo-american naive narcissism makes for an easy marketing environment, to be sure; but the Scandinavians manage to consume a lot in their own way. Pay attention to their motivator: public life. They get ideas for how to consume by walking around in the streets, looking at each other, and by dropping in their local design shops.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s