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EHRI- Conny Kristel fellowship for Solange Manche

Solange Manche was awarded a Conny Kristel-fellowship of EHRI to work in the collections of  CegeSoma early January. We had a short interview with her on her research project and findings.

Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I recently finished my thesis in French contemporary philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and I am currently a lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. In my doctoral thesis, I try to unpack in what ways and to what extent the financialisation of the economy affects the subject by which I understand both the subject as an individual and the subject matter of philosophy. When people talk about financialisation they tend to denote the period that started around the mid-70s and which is characterised by a change in capitalism: from then on, profits were no longer primarily derived from the production of commodities but increasingly came to be made in the world of finance. I noticed that this period coincided with a shift in the history of French thought. Whereas thinking about ontology and reality had been side-lined due to Cold War tensions and the shadow of the Second World War, contemporary French philosophers are interested again in the connection between science, anthropology, and the economy. It is this new approach, more specifically as found in the work of Catherine Malabou, Bernard Stiegler, and Frédéric Lordon that I use to understand how finance affects the temporalities of our lives.

What is your research as an EHRI fellow about and why did you want to research this topic?

My doctoral research might seem very far removed from the work that I’m now conducting as an EHRI fellow. However, more broadly speaking, my research explores how history, politics and economics influence the way we come to think about ourselves and how that in turn shapes the world we live in. With the example I previously gave, about the shadow of WWII, I more particularly hint at the equation that was being made between grand narratives that philosophers were known for and totalitarianism. This presupposes that thought drives history, whereas I think it is rather the other way round.

With a background in literary studies and the fine arts, I was struck by the intricate history of the Germanic medieval trickster figure of Tijl Uilenspiegel and how the myth became instrumentalised across the political spectrum in Belgium. In 1867, Charles De Coster wrote a novel that depicted Tijl as a freedom fighter against Spanish rule. Whereas the medieval Tijl is a more subversive trickster appealing to communists and liberals alike, it was De Coster’s more traditionally heroic character that fitted the anti-Burgundianism of several national socialist movements in Flanders. Wies Moens, the co-founder of the fascist movement Verdinaso, penned songs about the jester that were sung by Verdinaso’s paramilitary groups. Likewise, Tijl was used to recruit for the SS and appears frequently in fascist youth magazines to boost war morale. In 1998, Marnix Beyen wrote an extensive study on Uilenspiegel.

Most studies, like Beyen’s, focus on the figure in Flanders. Even if Tijl’s vivid cultural appropriations are fore and foremost Flemish, there is also reason to believe that Uilenspiegel might have had a Dutch afterlife following Verdinaso’s merger with the Dutch National Socialist Movement (NSB) in 1940. This might also explain his contemporary resurgence in Dutch neo-fascist youth organisations. It is the history of this Belgian-Dutch connection that I am now researching as an EHRI fellow, at CegeSoma in Brussels and the NIOD in Amsterdam.

Besides this specific transnational connection, I am also interested in how the appropriation of Tijl fits in the restructuring of cultural production after the occupation. This is a topic I am more familiar with in the case of the Netherlands, but my archival research is already revealing common ground found between Dutch and Flemish fascist organisations in terms of their outlook on the institutionalisation and control of artistic production. 

Which sources and collections have you already worked on?

Brochure for the play Ulenspiegel
directed by Renaat Grassin, 1942-43 season.
Ref : AA155 (DeVlag)

So far, I have consulted CegeSoma’s library, primarily for newspapers and censored press. I’ve focussed on propaganda and SS recruitment in the archives of the VNV (collaborating party), DeVlag (pro-German cultural organization), and Verdinaso. Without having been trained as a historian, I am still figuring out how and where material is being archived. In this respect, it was invaluable to have worked with Dirk Luyten, and I am looking forward to coming back this spring for new material.

Have you made any special findings up till now?

I am yet unsure whether my findings are a big addition to Beyen’s work. I imagine that this will become clearer in my comparative approach. Before coming to Brussels, what I really hoped to stumble upon was a Tijl play mentioned by Beyen but that he hadn’t been able to find. This would have enabled more detailed comparisons of performances. I did come across other documents that stirred my interest, in particular a speech by physician and professor (Gent) Frans Daels on the so-called “Toulouse professors,” a group of professors at Gent who fled to France and intended on founding an institute of Belgian refugees there. These plans never came to fruition, as Pétain came to power. Most of them returned to Belgium, a return that Daels greatly disapproves of in his speech. Having grown up in the southwest of France, I had never heard of the role Toulouse played for Belgium in WWII. I imagine that an article would be of great interest to people in the region.