Traditionally, the study of European languages and literatures has been organized in discrete departments, each of which studied one language, e.g. French, and the literature, culture and history of the nation chiefly associated with it, in this case France (rather than Belgium or Switzerland). However, recent decades have seen the field of study expand in several directions. Though the degree of hospitality shown to the new no doubt varies greatly from one university to the next, a language and literature department may now be expected to deal with colonial and postcolonial literature as well as with the multiculturalism of the metropolis; with mass literature and popular culture as well as with the traditional canon; and with cultural and social practices as well as with texts. It is against this background that we offer a paper dealing critically with the national frame of reference in the study of foreign languages and literatures. We shall be examining concepts such as nation, state and identity from a range of disciplinary perspectives – linguistics, literature, history, and the social sciences – with a view to developing and testing a number of tools that can be used in various contexts. It is our hope that this may help us to identify, and with luck meet, some of the challenges to our fields of study which the current social, political, and cultural changes entail. In itself the case presented below may be said to exemplify the new openings that have characterized language and literature studies in recent decades. Belgium has attracted much attention, not all of it favourable, because of its bilingualism, and it is often seen as a ‘problematic’ nation. But we shall argue that Belgium is in fact rather typical of our times; it is one of an increasing number of countries comprising several competing languages, cultures, and identities, and both the creation of the Belgian state in 1830-31 and its reorganization as a federal state in 1970 reflect general European developments. In the wave of nation states emerging in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the study of national history, literature, and culture was diligently pursued, contributing to what has later been termed “the construction of the national”. The nation state as the focus of identity and political organization became the preferred, and rarely challenged, framework for both the internal organization and the international co-operation of the peoples. Towards the end of the 20th century, however, supra-national political cooperation on the one hand, and the resurgence of regional identities on the other, combined to challenge the monopoly of the nation state (already under pressure from economic globalization) as an organizational framework. One result of this was a massive theorization of concepts such as nation, identity, and culture (Anderson 1983, Gellner 1983, Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983, Hobsbawm 1990, Smith 1986). In the context of this paper, the national historiography acquires importance in both cases. First it helps create and confirm the nation and (the changes in) the national identity; later it partakes in its deconstruction as new discourses and narratives are constructed or (re)invented. It is this rupture in the national narrative that will be discussed below on the basis of the Belgian example. Following the Austrian linguist Ruth Wodak, a leading authority on critical discourse analysis, we assume that national identities, as special forms of social identities, are produced and reproduced, as well as transformed and dismantled, discursively (Wodak 1999, 3-4). If we are to speak of a nation, there must be a certain measure of common narrative identity to be found across different communities and media. Belgium’s existence as a nation is thus reflected in various discourses of history, politics, society, and literature, and not least the history of literature with its reflections on the contribution of the arts to the debate on problems of national identity. We analyze a few of these genres, partly because we regard them as especially useful in discussing issues of national identity, partly because they may open up for a debate on interdisciplinarity in the teaching of foreign languages and literatures.Analyzing the selected texts, we employ a concept inspired by the
discourse-historical approach developed by Ruth Wodak and the Vienna School of Discourse Analysis; in the discussion of how the history of literature uses comics, obviously other methods and theories, not least from the field of visual analysis, must be added. Examining different kinds of texts should force us to consider which theories, methods or concepts may be used across the four strands of foreign language study (the linguistic, the literary-aesthetic, the cultural, and the historical-sociological), and to what degree it is possible or desirable to integrate these strands.