By Joris van Eijnatten

The Asymmetrical Encounters Project

Funded by the European research agency HERA (‘Humanities in the European Research Area’) ASYMENC is a collaboration of researchers based in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany. Its main objective is to text-mine historical news to better understand the complex nature of our European cultural heritage. To do this, ASYMENC analyses newspapers from different countries and in different languages to see how different national cultures have related to each other in the past.

The idea underlying the project is simple. Some countries are more powerful than others, and as a result their cultures may be more attractive than those of others. In analysing how diplomacy works in this respect, academics sometimes use the term ‘soft power’. ‘Hard power’ refers to the ability of some states to enforce compliance from other states through economic and financial sanctions or, alternatively, military coercion. At the same time, however, states often also present their values and aims in an attractive way, so as to convince other states that their way of life is a preferable one. This is called soft power.

American soft power in Hamburg-Bramfeld (Germany), Coca-Cola bottling works (2006). [Source: Wikimedia]
American soft power in Hamburg-Bramfeld (Germany), Coca-Cola bottling works (2006). [Source: Wikimedia]
There is an obvious link between hard and soft power, since big and rich countries have more resources (more people, more money) at their disposal to develop an attractive cultural agenda. But there are always exceptions to this rule. Switzerland, for instance, is not a large country but it is perfectly able to act as a model. Stereotypes may not be the most subtle expression of soft power but they may help to make clear several things. First, small countries have their own ways of selling their public image. In the Swiss case banking refers to confidentiality, Alps to respect for nature, cheese to taste and clocks to reliability; whether such images are ‘true’ is beside the point. A country’s culture may be more attractive only in certain respects. Swiss army knives are popular all over the world but yodelling is an acquired taste. Moreover, not all soft power is premeditated: in many cases, cultural attraction just happens. Either you have an Alp in your back garden or you don’t.

Cultures that have access to soft power and exert attraction over others tend to be role models. They act as ‘reference cultures’. These are cultures that exist in specific times and places, offering models which other cultures may or may not want to follow. Reference cultures have exerted a profound influence in history. Examples are the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, which presented an economic model without precedence, while also serving as a paragon of tolerance because so many religious groups lived side by side in relative peace. Or think of France’s historical role as a model for fashion and style, or as the cradle of human rights and freedoms. Nineteenth-century Britain stood for empirical wealth and early twentieth-century Germany for high culture. With the rapid decline of Europe’s global status after 1918, the United States became the reference culture for the rest of the world.

The French café as model. Théophile Steinlen (1859-1923), “Café à Léon D..., Boulevard de la Chapelle”, Oil on canvas (1921).
The French café as model. Théophile Steinlen (1859-1923), “Café à Léon D…, Boulevard de la Chapelle”, Oil on canvas (1921).

Thus, within specific historical periods, different states have provided different cultural frames of reference to territories within, or bordering on, their economic, political or military spheres of influence. Because of the cultural attraction or soft power they exerted, these frames of reference settled in the collective imagination of other peoples. It is this collective imagination to which the newspapers of the past provide access.

Newspapers are part of public debate; they give us insight into public opinion or, to use another term, the ‘collective mentality’ of a people. For historians they are a treasure-trove of information, a trove that has rapidly grown larger and deeper over the past decade as a result of wholescale digitisation. Traditional historical research was (and still is) non-digital. It took and still takes place in archives or libraries, where scholars do painstaking manual research. Digitisation offers the opportunity to interrogate the vast amounts of information stored in periodicals like newspapers over large expanses of time. By way of example: the Dutch national library provides access to more than nine million newspaper pages. To closely read a single page might take us, say, twenty minutes. To read the complete repository of Dutch newspapers requires 180 million minutes, or more than 340 years of consecutive reading. And this is only about 10% of the total number of Dutch-language newspapers that could be digitised, given time and funding.

Close reading the paper. British physicist Sir William Thomson Kelvin (1824-1907) reading a newspaper (Glasgow, before 1897).
Close reading the paper. British physicist Sir William Thomson Kelvin (1824-1907) reading a newspaper (Glasgow, before 1897).

Fortunately, we now have computers to do much of this work for us. By using computers we can read newspapers from a ‘distance’ (hence the term ‘distant reading’ as a complement to traditional ‘close reading’, which is the way we usually read newspapers over breakfast). We can examine newspapers in bulk, on the basis of word clouds, graphs, timelines and other attractive visualisations that allow us to get an impression of the things people thought (or rather wrote) about in the past. Such visualisations act, in effect, as representations of collective mentalities. They show us what was in the minds of people in the past. For the record, the software used by the ASYMENC researchers, as well as the implications of using it, are much more complicated than this brief account of the project suggests!

By looking at the way reference cultures work, we can better understand the process of cultural integration – and sometimes disintegration – in Europe in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. One ambition may well be to extend this period backwards in time, to the Treaty of Vienna (1815) for example. We could then capture the heyday of the nation state as well as its gradual substitution by European integration, thus including, but also going beyond, the Treaty of Maastricht (1992). Or why not begin in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia? In the future this could certainly be done. It would require adding other kinds of source material to the newspapers, such as pamphlets and magazines. And such a project would need to depend on improved ‘OCR’ – that is, computers would need to get better at recognising that the shapes they see on printed newspapers correspond to very specific letters, and not to others.

Digitisation equipment at the Sächsische Landesbibliothek - Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (2014).
Digitisation equipment at the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (2014).

But there is more than enough material for the ASYMENC project available from the decades between 1880 and 1990. Despite the limitations – in terms of the quality of the digitisation, or the fact that periodicals change in content and structure over time, or the problems encountered in using, developing and sustaining software – newspapers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg allow us to examine the way larger and smaller cultures within North-Western Europe mutually reflected each other’s cultures.Such knowledge about changing mutual references over more than a century provides new and exciting insights into the present identity of Europe.