(Re)Narrating Europe

Towards a Plurality of Histories and Queered Identities

Short Summary and Take Away

Identities are fluid and multiple, not solid and singular. So is that of Europe. We narrate Europe in a way that positions “us Europeans” as good, “developped”, as somehow superior to in particular countries in the Global South. If we revisit the histories and narratives about, in, and of Europe, we can see that “us” and “them” are more entangled than we might think. If we allow for fluid, queered identities and multiple identifications based on a plurality of interwoven histories, third generation immigrants are no longer immigrants, but Europeans, and Islam is no longer oppositional to Europe but has been part of its history.


It is necessary to make ourselves the guardians of an idea of Europe, of a difference of Europe, but of a Europe that consists precisely in not closing itself off in its own identity and in advancing itself in an exemplary way toward what it is not, toward the other heading or the heading of the other, indeed – and this is perhaps something else altogether – toward the other of the heading, which would be the beyond of this modern tradition. (Derrida, 1992, p. 29)

What is this idea of Europe that describes the beyond of European modernity? Is there a Europe beyond modernity? Would that Europe, possibly, not be dependent on a binarism-based construction of ‘us’ and ‘them’? On different level stands the same question: What does it mean to be European? Who can successfully claim Europeanness? What does ‘Europe’ stand for? Terms such as the ‘European migrant crisis’ and ‘Europe’s identity crisis’ show the existence of a certain uncertainty on the level of the media. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ appear as the only identity marker accessible to this broader discourse. ‘We’ define ‘us’ in opposition to ‘them’. The EU level is, in a different way, caught up in this separation of ‘us’ and ‘them’, deciding who, exactly, is allowed access to this ‘we’. Are ‘they’ not long since part of ‘us’? When are ‘they’ no longer ‘them’ but ‘us’, ‘European’? On the level of those, essential for the building of ‘one’ Europe after WWII, we find, on the contrary, a clear narrative of what it means to be European (cf. Eliot 1962, Valéry 1962). European history, we are to believe, is the continuity of the Greek, the Romans, and the Christians on to a modern, secular, and enlightened public. In this context, an opposition to the so perceived traditional, religious, and oppressive Islam makes sense; ‘them’ and ‘us’ are essentially different, and ‘they’ can, following this narrative, never become ‘European’. Is the separation into ‘us’ and ‘them’ the only narrative available for what it means to be European? Through a discussion of literature on European identity and narrative, I seek to make a theoretical contribution to overcome the essentialist separation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and (re)tell the tale that is Europe.

The leading question is: In what ways can an understanding of European identity and history be re-narrated to transcend binary identity constructions? The problem with a binary construction of Europe and its Others is twofold. Firstly, the binary construction does not stop at positioning ‘us’ and ‘them’ as opposed entities, but hierarchises the groups in a Eurocentric tradition. Secondly, ‘they’ are not allowed a claim to Europeanness, even if born and raised in a European nation, due to skin colour, religion, or different perceived Otherness. Through applying a combination of queer theory and a narrative-constructivist approach to European cultural identity and history, I aim at a breaking with traditional linear and binary accounts of Europe. ‘To go to the beyond of this modern tradition’ (Derrida, 1992, p. 29), I argue, we need to move beyond hierarchical, binarism-based, and solid identity constructions and allow for multiple narratives and histories. Differentiation is part of identity constructions. The differentiation does not, however, need to be essentialist and hierarchical but a transcendable and non-linear conceptualisation is imaginable if we make ourselves ‘the guardians’, in Derrida’s (1992) words, of a pluralistic and entangled – queered – history and identity. My aim is to contribute to a canon of literature that re-narrates Europe beyond Christianity, beyond modernity, beyond, in a way, itself, to truly break with its modern, read colonial[1], tradition.

To make this contribution I am combining narrative analysis and queer theory to form my theoretical lens. Analysis of the link between narratives and European cultural identity, in the so called ‘narrative turn in European studies’ (Bouza García, 2017), has been conducted by scholars such as Kaiser (2017), Eder (2009) and Scalise (2015). While these accounts, especially Eder, will also be drawn upon, I argue that an inter-disciplinary account of European identity beyond a narrative approach to identity is largely still missing. To go beyond this limitation, the approach that will form the basis of this discussion and analysis is inter-disciplinary and will consist of a combination of a narrative-constructivist approach and queer theory. What will prove most important for this dissertation from the side of the narrative approach, is the way in which it understands narratives and identities as linked (cf. Eder 2009). The way in which Europe narrates itself, then, is directly linked to European identity. Queer theory is relevant, because it is a tool that works in the in-between, transcending binaries. I will use it to transcend binary constructs common to nationalistic accounts of Europe, to come to an understanding of (European) identities as fluid. By queered identities, then, I mean in this context identities that are not based upon the binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Writing from an interdisciplinary perspective opens the possibility of thinking about topics in a new way, which is exactly what is needed for the re-narration of Europe.

This new way of imagining European cultural identity entails an understanding of the relationship between multiple histories and queered and fluid identities that transcend binary ‘us’ and ‘them’ constructions. I argue in this dissertation that a kaleidoscope of histories can give way to fluid, plural, and queered identities; joining a narrative-constructivist and a queer theory approach to become my theoretical lens I attempt a re-narration of what Europe means not in the singular, but plural, outside of methodological nationalism and beyond binarism-based identity constructions.

Chapter 1 will outline this same theoretical lens and link narrative analysis and queer theory to form my interdisciplinary approach. After discussing my theoretical approach, I will in Chapter 2 look at what will be established as the so perceived canon on European cultural identity. Perceptions of modernity, binary identity constructs, and linear narratives linked to national constructions of Europe will be discussed, and a basic reading of Derrida (1992) will be introduced. Chapter 3 and 4 will propose a re-narration of Europe. In a first step multiple histories and narratives of Europe will be explored to open the linear canon discussed previously, introducing a plurality of histories. The second step is to queer European perceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and transcend ‘our’ and ‘their’ heading to arrive at my interpretation of ‘the other of the heading’ (cf. Derrida, 1992).

  1. To Queer and to Narrate

I use “queer” here as a verb rather than an adjective, describing a practice of identity (de)construction that results in a new type of diasporic consciousness [¼] using the tension of living supposedly exclusive identities and transforming it into a creative potential, building a community based on the shared experience of multiple, contradictory positionalities. (El-Tayeb, 2011, p. xxxvi)

Kaiser (2015), a scholar studying Europe through a narrative approach, discusses the role of narrative production in the process of what he calls ‘European nation-building’. Europe might be conceptualised as a nation, but this should not be the starting point of the discussion, it could be its end; everything else is methodological nationalism, applying concepts to Europe that we are used to using from the study of the nation. To understand processes of narrative construction, I am going to use a narrative-constructivist approach, as did Kaiser (2015). To avoid his limitation, however, I will use concepts brought up in the narratives themselves and not apply concepts from outside of them to their study. What is more, this is not the endpoint of my discussion but rather its foundation. The next step consists of, in Chapter 3, proposing a re-narration of the European narrative outside of the nationalistic binaries identified in chapter two. I will, in Chapter 4, use queer theory to understand the power of the in-between in deconstructing binary identity constructs. A combination of queer theory and narrative analysis represents thus the lens for this thesis, forming an inter-disciplinary approach to the study of what Europe means. After firstly establishing the narrative-constructivist approach and secondly introducing how queer theory is to be understood in this thesis, I am finally in this first chapter proposing a combination of the two as a tool to study the meaning of Europe.

  1. 1.     To Tell a Tale of Identification

Narratives are a method, a theory (of identity), and a practice (cf. De Fina & Georgakopoulou, 2015). There exists an ‘intimate link between narrative and modes of self- and other- understanding’ (ibid., p. 2). Narratives and processes of identification are, hence, linked. The approach to identity used in this dissertation is based on this premise in line with Eder’s (2009) argument as discussed in the following. This thesis will, in parts, be based on the proposition of narratives as method, theory and practice to analyse modes of identification with what we call Europe.

Narrative analysis can be used to study the link between narratives and identities (De Fina & Georgakopoulou, 2008; Eder, 2009). It is important to note here that narratives contextualise identities as much as identities contextualise narratives (De Fina & Georgakopoulou, 2008, p. 275). This means that narratives of Europe are shaped by what is believed to be European and that Europeanness, in turn, is created through a narrative, or narratives, of Europe. The reciprocal relationship of narratives and identity are at the basis of this thesis. Eder (2009) analyses this process defined by De Fina and Georgakopoulou (2008) in relation to Europe. He argues that collective identities are narrative constructions and thus, as I understand, follows Hall’s (2000) call for a discursive approach to identification. The focus is not on questions of fixed identities, but on processes of identification. Identifications thought of as process are never complete and can be lost and change. Narratives in this context are tools used to control boundaries and create social relations.

This approach is, however, often caught up in a methodological nationalism as noticed by Scalise (2015). Methodological nationalism takes for granted such categories as ‘us’ and ‘them’, engrained in nationalistic understandings, without questioning their relevance for the field of study. And yet, a narrative analysis has the potential to go beyond this very problem, as when we start questioning the categories applied, we learn to better understand how people, a people or other groups narrate themselves. Identities understood alongside the narrative approach are formable. Their form depends on the narrative applied; different narratives compete to create the leading point of identification. Here, too, a methodological nationalism can be identified, one that assumes identity to be singular and fixed and, as a result, does not allow for multiple identifications. The question that is raised here in regard to Europe is: Whether and how can multiple narratives not solely compete for a singular identification but rather exist together and transcend each other in order to form a plurality of histories and multiple, fluid identities? Identification based on this premise would also be multiple, and, identity, or rather identities, could be queered.

  1. 2. The Act of Queering

Queer theory originates in gender and sexuality studies, and, yet, has the potential to go beyond the deconstruction of the binary of man and woman, to be applied to other binaries. El-Tayeb’s (2011) work represents one example of an application outside of gender and sexuality studies. In this dissertation, I am going to apply queer theory to ‘us’ and ‘them’ constructions and use it to interpret Derrida’s (1992) ‘the other of the heading’, the beyond of ‘our’, and ‘their’ heading. To do so, I base my understanding of queer theory on El-Tayeb’s take on queering as well as on two of the foundational figures of queer theory, namely Anzaldúa (2007) and Butler (1997, 2002). Using foundational texts as well as a more recent and topically closer application of queer theory promises a diverse and sound theoretical foundation that is aware of both the basis as well as the development of the theory.

My view on queer theory is guided by reading both Butler (1997, 2002) and Anzaldua (2007) as foundational to the concept of queering. ‘For normalizing the queer would be, after all, its sad finish.’ (Butler, 1997, p. 25) To define the term ‘queer’, then, is not an aim. ‘Queer’ as a term puts itself in the space between naturalising binary constructions of gender (Butler, 2002). Any definition beyond the indefinable is not what Butler had in mind, based on her call ‘against proper objects’ (Butler, 1997). ‘Against proper objects’ can also be understood as a call for the wider application of queer theory, and for it not to be restricted to one field, one object alone. When reading Anzaldúa (2007) as foundational of queer theory, the role of questioning identity touched upon in the discussion of the narrative-constructivist side of the approach becomes relevant also in this context. Anzaldúa writes about the ‘consciousness of the mestiza’ and describes fluid and actionary, rather than reactionary, identities formed in the borderlands. Following queer theory in its manner of transcending binaries and creating new spaces and consciousnesses, hence, allows for a concept of identities that is fluid and goes beyond singular and static identification.

In most cases, queer readings are applied in the realm of gender identity and sexuality such as in Berger’s (2000) ‘queer readings of Europe’, in which the queer reading regards cases of gay/lesbian and transgender politics in the European Court of Justice. El-Tayeb (2011) makes the step outside gender and sexuality studies and applies queer theory to erased identities within Europe. She (ibid., p. 171) uses a queering and creolisation of theory to understand and create the ‘potential to making thinkable lived identities erased in dominant European discourses.’ Her analysis focuses on the experience of Europeans of colour that, El-Tayeb argues, have no space in normative conceptualisation of Europe. The power in El-Tayeb’s argument lies with the case-specific analysis and broader context discussed and thus does not fall into what Butler (1997) called the ‘sad finish’ of queer theory, namely normalising the concept. In this power, however, also lies El-Tayeb’s limitation of not being able to rethink the boundaries of European identity as fluid and transcendable. Applying queer theory to perceptions of Europe as such holds the danger of normalising queer theory, a point which is of importance for this dissertation and is well considered. By applying it in combination with a narrative-constructivist approach, I believe I am able to evade this critique as the goal is not to queer European identity in the singular; the goal is rather to apply queer theory, conceptualised alongside El-Tayeb’s (2011, p. xxxvi) usage of it as a verb, as cited in the beginning of this chapter, to European narratives of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In queering European narratives of ‘us’ and ‘them’, I aim to go beyond El-Tayeb’s limitation to open European cultural identity for those marginalised by it. This will be the subject of the last chapter of this dissertation.

  1. 3. Combining the Lenses

Europe is not a nation state. New tools and approaches need to be conceptualised in order to avoid methodological nationalism, which Scalise (2015) has criticised studies of European identity for. I propose the combination of narrative analysis and queer theory as one tool capable of studying European cultural identity outside of the conceptualisations of the nation state. The narrative-constructivist approach looks at the existing narratives and, thus, has the potential of generating concepts starting from the narratives themselves, rather than applying pre-conceptualised terms to its study. Queer theory is the study of difference; queer as a term has the potential to transcend, to stand in between and to look beyond binary structures such as private/public, man/woman, ‘us’/’them’, common for the nation state. Furthermore, senses of belonging and identification are fluid and no longer, to the point that they ever were, static as this was proposed by nationalistic accounts. Queer theory, as account of fluidity and transcendental processes, then, lends itself to study the meaning of Europe outside of the nationalistic and binarism-based lens. In combination, these approaches allow for a re-narration and -imagination of what Europe means, that goes beyond nationalistic constructions and accounts of traditional-modern trajectories.

2. ‘Us’ Europeans and ‘Them’ Non-Europeans

The canon has historically been a nexus of power and knowledge that reinforces hierarchies and the vested interests of select institutions, excluding the interests and accomplishments of minorities, popular and demotic culture, or non-European civilizations. (Mukherjee, 2014, p. 9)

Accounts of European narratives are often constructed in a linear manner, leading from one point in the past to one point in the future in a clear line. This narrative is going to be discussed in this chapter alongside Eliot (1979) and Valéry (1962), representing post World War Two accounts of European identity. Such narratives are also found in national accounts and rely on binary structures such as traditional/modern, ‘them’/’us’, and woman/man. These structures, I will argue in this chapter, form the basis of the European self-narrative. As such they have an impact on how we perceive of European identity, whether it remains static or is opened to queering. The binaries are used in the narratives and in some cases their study without rethinking their applicability, falling back into a previously discussed methodological nationalism. The discussion of the binary structure will be guided by Derrida’s (1992) ‘our’ and ‘their’ heading. The last part of this chapter asks the question, what a canon is and how it can be identified based on Mukherjee (2014). Why choose who as representational? The last step is important as it opens the discussion for Chapter 3 and 4.

2.1. The ‘Growth’ of European Culture

One of the underlying patterns of accounts of Europe is coined by the language and logic of social evolutionism, that describes a linear development through stages. Two well-known and often cited examples for this statement are T.S. Eliot (1979) and Paul Valéry (1962). Both intellectuals’ approach European culture and its sources in their writings; they define Greece, Rome, and Christianity – and Eliot also Israel – as the red threat of Europe. While their conceptualisations of European history differ slightly, they share a social, or rather cultural, evolutionism as the basis for their arguments. Social evolutionism can be best defined through Morgan’s (1964) conceptualisation of human stages of development: According to his theory societies have to go through ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism’ to arrive at ‘civilisation’. Morgan wrote around the same time as Valéry and Eliot and similarities in their perception of the world are visible, namely regarding the underlying logic of their writings which can be identified as social evolutionism.

Eliot’s (1979, p. 120) point of departure for his analysis, in my understanding, is his definition of culture that makes possible a hierarchisation of societies. While culture for him describes the way in which a particular people lives together and organises itself in a given territory, he furthermore links his definition of culture to its Latin source ‘to cultivate’. Based on this approach to culture, what defines Europe today is its shared history and the process of growth it went through to arrive at its ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’ stage today. The implication of this assumption is the ability to hierarchise cultures; while some societies are more, some are less ‘cultured’ because they are not yet as far developed. For a culture to develop, it needs to be ‘cultivated’, and some societies have more ‘successfully’ attended to ‘their’ culture than ‘others’. In the light of his argument treating Europe, he assumes Europe as the most cultivated society, that has gone furthest along the path of this cultural evolutionism and reached the stage that Morgan (1964) named civilisation.

The influence of social evolutionism on Valéry (1962, p. 311f) is visible in his image of Europe as the place in which most ‘daydreams’ have been realised. What sets the human apart from animals is, for Valéry, not their ability to create languages or being conscious, but their ability to have ‘daydreams’ and influence their surroundings accordingly. Europe, then, is defined by Valéry as the place where people have most influenced, in Eliot’s (1979) approach ‘cultivated’, nature to make reality the highest number of ‘daydreams’. The source of Europe’s development is identified by Valéry (ibid., p. 316) as the Mediterranean market which has enabled Europe to become a vector of transformation, disregarding how in this argument also those living across the sea would have contributed to the European development. While many references of cultural evolutionism resonate with the discussion of Eliot’s approach to Europe, Valéry (1962, p. 315) also describes a monstrous behaviour of Europe linked to greed and ambition. This is, however, only scarcely touched upon and is not further mentioned, arguably because of the discussed perception of culture as developing through stages. Europe, as the most developed, might have weaknesses but they are justified by Europe ‘helping less developed’ societies.

Through a linear development, for both Eliot (1979) and Valéry (1962), grows a Europe that has no comparison as a society. Through the Greek, the Romans, and the Christians has developed with intrinsic force and careful ‘cultivation’ what we today call Europe. Still today the language and logic of social evolutionism persists in expressions such as ‘developing countries’.

2. 2. ‘Our and Their Heading’

What is the link between the discussed linear development and structures of ‘us’ and ‘them’? More than implicit in the classification of Europe as (most) ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’ is a subordination of a generalised Other as less ‘civilised’ and ‘traditional’. Two sides are established, in which a clear hierarchisation is apparent. The binary opposition of ‘us’ and ‘them’ will be further established in this part of the chapter, discussed alongside two of Derrida’s (1992) ‘headings’ of Europe. I will identify this binary structure as the basis of the European self-narrative, as it links ‘us’ to ‘modern’ and ‘them’ to ‘traditional’. The third heading, namely ‘the other of the heading’, will be discussed in the last chapter in relation to a queering of these same binary oppositions.

The binarism that is at the centre of this discussion is ‘us’ and ‘them’, conceptualised alongside Derrida’s (1992) ‘the other heading’ and ‘the heading of the other’. The metaphor of ‘the heading’ can be understood as his approach to culture, something that is at the same time ‘arche’, that from which something proceeds, and ‘telos’, that what is striven for, of a society and thus renders it a culture. Derrida discusses primarily three different types of headings: firstly, ‘the other heading’, which represents the awareness that the heading can change, to, for example, ‘the other of the heading’, which represents the second heading and is coined by the encounter with ‘the other’, and, thirdly, ‘the other of the heading’. Different interpretations of especially ‘the other of the heading’ have been attempted, and I will outline and discuss some of them in the last chapter of this dissertation. Of importance for this section of the dissertation are the first two headings, as they, in my understanding, represent the binary approach to identity, ‘us’ and ‘them’ structures.

Europe’s self-understanding is defining of the relationship between ‘the other heading’ and ‘the heading of the other’. Derrida (1992, p. 22) quotes Valéry’s elaboration on ‘daydreams’, I argue, to establish this question of how Europe understands itself. He asks whether Europe will insist on being something that it is only in appearance and not essence, namely the ‘brain’, the most developed, ‘cultivated’, region. Or will it rather become what it is in its essence, a cape of the Asian continent? Interesting to note, is that ‘cape’ in French is ‘le cap’, which is also the French translation of ‘the heading’; The Other Heading in French is hence called L’Autre Cap (see French version of the text: Derrida, 1991). Bearing in mind Derrida’s playfulness with language and words, while for example juggling the different headings, this does not seem like a coincidence. The European ‘cap’, a little cape on another continent or the brain of the world and the heading others should pursue? The self-understanding, Derrida (1991,p. 28f) continues his argument, leans towards the latter:

Europe has also confused its image, its face, its figure and its very place, its taking-place, with that of an advanced point [¼]. The idea of an advanced point of exemplarity is the idea of the European idea, its eidos, at once as arché [¼] and as telos [¼]. The advanced point is at once beginning and end, it is divided as beginning and end; it is the place from which or in view of which everything takes place.

Europe, then, defines itself by being the example of development and civilisation, in the same light as Eliot (1979) and Valéry (1962) have drawn it out to be; Europe sees itself as the most advanced. This position is not only constituent of the idea of Europe itself, but is also the setting in which history and narratives unfold. This setting and the categories used in the narrative need, following my discussion in Chapter 1, to be questioned: What does this mean for structures of ‘us’, Europeans, and ‘them’, non-Europeans? A dynamic that becomes visible in both social evolutionism and Derrida’s analysis of European self-understanding is that Europe associates itself with being ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’, while the European, generalised Other is ‘traditional’, not to say ‘backward’. These two binaries, ‘us’ and ‘them’ as well as ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ are hence linked to form the European self-narrative. The dialectic function of the Othering process, famously discussed by Said (1995) as the creation of a negative reflection of the Self, becomes visible in this process. Through linking the binaries, European narrates its identity as ‘the most advanced’ and created by intrinsic force which leads to a perception of European identity as stable and in the singular. The next subchapter will form the first step in opening this identity to become identities in the plural through an opening of the canon to multiple narratives.

2. 3. The Question of the Canon

I have presented the above discussed self-narrative of Europe as canonical, by which I mean something that is authoritative, that is agreed upon, and that is accepted based on common definitions such as the definition of the online Oxford dictionary (Lexico, n.d.). The question of the canon is, however, contested and should not be left without further discussion. I have furthermore discussed Eliot’s (1979) and Valéry’s (1962) texts as classics forming part of the European canon. Doing so might be justified by the number of times they have been referenced, by the impact they had, in what context they were introduced or whether they are still used in for example European institutes. I would, however, also like to question this premise and further discuss their status. Two definitions become central: that of the classic itself and that of the canon it is a part of. These will in turn be discussed in the first part of this subchapter. Once I have questioned the definitions of ‘canon’ and ‘classic’ I will move on to discuss a possible opening of the European canon beyond so-perceived classics of Eliot (1979) and Valéry (1962) to include multiple narratives. Identification, I argue, does not need to be confined to narratives in the singular. This will form the transition to the next part of this dissertation, proposing a plurality of histories rather than a fixed canon.

In What is a classic? Mukherjee (2014) takes up this very question, already posed by multiple scholars, one of which was Eliot (1945). Their conceptualisations will form the basis of my discussion of both classic and canon. I have used one of Eliot’s (1979) text as one of the ‘classics’ of European self-narrative, and yet this use would for him (Eliot, 1945) only be the modern shadow of ‘real’ classics that were written in Greek or Latin; which leads back to his (Eliot, 1979) definition of European cultural sources. The use of his text as a classic does hold up against the second part that, for him, is defining of a classic: that it emerges or is the proof of a homogenous, ‘mature’ civilisation that has undergone a historical development and is conscious of this same history. The logic of social evolutionism that became apparent in Eliot’s approach to culture can thus be found also in his definition of a classic. Another point that links the classic to the European self-narrative previously established is the dialectic Mukherjee (2014, p. 32) finds in Eliot’s (1945) conceptualisations. In this dialectic, the classic meets the random, the national the international, the absolute the unorthodox. Is this only a dialectic or can it also be described as a binary opposition such as ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’? The ‘classic’, then, would be part of the very binary structure that makes possible the European canon. Mukherjee (2014, p. 35) reaches the same conclusion in this context: ‘The notion of the classic is inseparable from notions of empire.’ And so is the canon that is made up by these classics, coming to life through existing power structures and in turn reinforcing the hierarchies in place (cf. ibid., p. 9).

The canon is written in the interest of those in power, and the constructed narrative used, based on the narrative approach discussed in Chapter 1, to control identifications. A European canon from the twentieth century, which describes the self-narrative previously discussed in this chapter, was written at the peak of colonial power structures. It outlives its source and reinforces the structures beyond direct colonial power. Another approach to the same phenomenon, namely that colonial power structures exist beyond direct colonial rule, can be found with decolonial writers such as Mignolo (2011) or Quijano (2007). The self-narrative represents, furthermore, a Eurocentric canon, as it is exclusionist of other accounts and expands the vision of its own superiority beyond its geographical realms and claims universality – which has been identified as defining eurocentrism by Quijano (2000) and Kozlarek (2000). The canon presents itself as fixed and stable, following the pattern of nationalistic accounts of identity as proposed in the previous chapter. This self-perception is however challenged by postcolonial studies, feminist research, and global voices (cf. Mukherjee, 2014, p. 9). Mukherjee’s answer to this questioning of the canon is to introduce alternative canons that take voices into account that the previous canon excluded. My approach is a different one. I want to change the perception of the canon as a fixed entity to an open and fluid concept that doesn’t represent one single, but multiple narratives. Identity as a concept is when based upon multiple narratives opened to fluidity and no longer static. To make this argument is the goal of the following chapter.

3. A Plurality of Histories

Europe has more than one story.

(Eder, 2009, p. 441)

‘Europe is the Bible and the Greeks’ (Levinas, 2001, p. 182). Following Canovan’s (2005, p. 13) argument that the Romans were thought of as the ‘civilised’ world, and ‘civilised’ was in the time of the fall of Rome defined by the Church and Christianity, the Bible reference, in this quote, can be linked to the Romans. The same linear narrative Valéry (1962) and Eliot (1979) have drawn out as Europe’s history can hence be found in Levinas’ statement. While I have criticised this narrative in the last chapter for being Eurocentric, this critique is not enough. The first part of this chapter will discuss why on the basis of Glendinning (2011) and Gasché (2009). Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism will be outlined as another binarism visible in European discourse.

Europe should instead be described as ‘Greek, Christian and beyond’ (Derrida, 1997, p. 103). ‘Beyond’, here, means Europe’s supposed readiness to break with itself and the accounts of Islam and Judaism that Europe is moving towards (cf. Derrida, 1997, p. 103, Glendinning, 2011). If Europe is indeed ready to break with itself, then it has to break with the account of Europe as the Romans and the Greek and look ‘beyond’ its self-narrative to include multiple stories, to not write the history of Europe but histories. It means to not perceive of itself as moving toward Judaism and Islam but moving on from and moving in Judaism and Islam. Narratives of European development exclude, or at least minimalize, stories that are not Greek or Christian (cf. Stone, 2017). Following the narrative approach previously discussed, how we tell a story influences the way in which we see ourselves and others (cf. De Fina & Georgakopoulou, 2015). Stories, other than those perceived of as canonical, need to be heard in order to rethink European identity beyond the Greek and Christian account. Recognising multiple narratives has a direct implication on how we perceive of ourselves in relation to others and is in this chapter proposed as a way to go beyond the binarism-based, linear self-narrative discussed.

3. 1. Beyond a Critique of Eurocentrism

To arrive at a plurality of histories, we have to go beyond the circle of (anti-) Eurocentrism. I have criticised the narrative of Europe’s development through stages following social evolutionism for being Eurocentric and for hierarchising as well as fixating ‘us’ and ‘them’ structures to the benefit of Europe. As we have seen, influences that originate from accounts other than Greek and Christian are kept to the minimum in the European self-narrative (see also Stone, 2017). This can and should be criticised, yet there are scholars, namely Stone (2017), Glendinning (2011), and Gasché (2009), that argue that to criticise it as Eurocentric, is not enough because it is simply repeating the discourse.

Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism present another binarism such as ‘us’/’them that leaves no ground for the in-between, that in fact would represent the basis from which to move forward. To criticise the European narrative of Romans and Christians as Eurocentric, Gasché (2009, p. 8) argues, is to turn in a circle and to not take the whole picture into account as Europe and discourses of power are more complex than this statement. Glendinning (2011), in part, bases his argument on Gasché’s elaborations; especially his treating of Europe not solely as a political or geographical entity, but a philosophical one, is in accordance to Gasché’s conceptualisations. Europe, for Glendinning (2011, p. 6), is the ‘becoming-European of a certain world’. This European world has been and still is racist, a fact that is linked to the developmentalism, namely social evolutionism, engrained in European narratives. Often criticised as Eurocentric is the ‘world-wide-ization’ of this ‘humanist anthropology’, as Glenndinning (2011, p. 13) calls it, that describes this same social evolutionism. The question for neither Glendinning nor Gasché, as I understand it, is, however, about (anti-)Eurocentrism. The two -isms can be identified as yet another binary that is visible in European discourses: Eurocentric discourses want to further and keep in place European power and see Europe as the peak of development; anti-Eurocentric discourses criticise Europe for its past and present and discredit European thought tout court. Both leave Europe at a stand-still and merely reconfirm the present identity crisis. How can we move forward without Eurocentric practices but also without discrediting everything European? The answer, I argue, lies in the in-between.

To arrive at the in-between, I argue, that we need to follow Gasché’s (2009) call to look at what is meant by ‘Europe’ when we are talking about, for example, racism ‘in Europe’. The argument that I am making based on the narrative approach discussed in Chapter 1 is that Europe is defined by the narrative it evokes about itself. The way in which the European canon is presented does not leave a place for that which is non-European, other than in its subordination that reaffirms Europe’s status as ‘most civilised’, ‘most mature’. To arrive at this identity, the self-narrative only includes so perceived ‘European’ elements for its development, namely the Romans, the Christians, and the Greek. Elements that are not deemed European are discredited which leaves for example Muslims as forever on the outside of European identity, as ‘present in Europe and yet absent from it’ (Asad, 2002, p. 209). To go beyond the circle of (anti-)Eurocentrism, and to rethink Europe’s meaning through the in-between, we need to allow for other narratives to be heard as “European”. A re-narration of what ‘Europe’ means through a plurality of histories is the subject of the next subchapter.

3. 2. Beyond the Fixed Canon

What narratives of Europe are left untold in the idealisation of the Western past, as Davies (1996, p. 28) calls the fixed European canon? To leave the circle of (anti-)Eurocentrism, that seemed to have invalidated the subject of Europe itself, Davies (1996) proposes a descriptive approach to history. This subchapter will describe one of the narratives left out in the fixed European canon. A narrative approach is nevertheless also aware of the fact that stories are always partially told; in Davies’ discussion this same principle is visible in his conceptualisation of history as a camera with a specific framing. As such, I do not attempt to re-narrate Europe as a whole, to the extent to which this would ever be possible, but to showcase one narrative that helps deconstruct the homogenous, linear European narrative and leads into the direction of a plurality of histories.

To deconstruct the notion of a fixed European canon, I will narrate that which is perceived as ‘traditional’ as ‘modern’. Through a discussion of Eliot (1979) and Valéry (1962) I have shown in the previous chapter how the notions of Europe and civilisation are linked in the fixed European canon. Through linking the notion of civilisation with Europe, beyond its understanding as a geographical entity, Europe becomes ‘modern’ and ‘civilised’ (cf. Asad, 2002). Linked to this understanding of Europe is a positioning of Islam as ‘traditional’ and as affronting the ‘modern, Western’ form of life (cf. ibid.). Because of this perceived affront of what is considered ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’, discussed in relation to ‘us’ and ‘them’ also in the previous chapter, the story I am outlining to add to accounts of Europe is that of (some of the) Muslim presence in Europe. I chose this narrative as contrary to the fixed canon’s narrative, because the Muslim influence only enabled the conceptualisation of Europe as modern by contributing, not to say starting, the Renaissance (cf. Delanty, 2013; Sulasman, 2012).

The Muslim presence in Spain is one narrative that shows how the internalist and supposedly linear development of Europe is deceiving. Sulasman (2012) discusses the role of Islam in teaching the European continent in the intellectual as well as architectural sphere. With the building of schools and mosques, the philosophical thinking and intellectual life were thriving. The narrative that one could take from these historical accounts is one in which Islam influenced Europe, Islam being a ‘modernising’ agent in Europe’s history, and, thus, in fact, being part of European history and not its opponent. Delanty (2013, p. 113) agrees on the importance that is to be attributed to encounters with the non-European in the wake of the Renaissance. Only through this could the texts of antiquity be rediscovered; a process that led to the Renaissance. The Renaissance, as the next step, was used as a basis for European identity. This interpretation was, however, conceptualised long after the Renaissance happened (cf. Delanty, 2013, p. 114). When it was interpreted in hindsight, Davies’ (1996) discussed ‘idealising filter’ was applied to its reading. The narration was made to fit into the linear, internalist narrative of Europe and external influences and their importance were minimalised.

What follows from the short discussion of the Islamic influence on the European Renaissance, is that Europe did not ‘break with itself’ simply by own force, but its today considered Other formed an active part of this development. Narratives that go beyond the fixed European canon do exist and they are an important de-essentialising agent for today’s perceptions of Self and Other (cf. Asad, 2002). The next subchapter will further explore the impact of a plurality of histories from a narrative perspective and serve as a transition to the closer discussion of identity in the last chapter of this thesis.

3. 3. Beyond Fixed Identities

To move beyond Europe’s identity crisis, we need to account for a plurality of Europe’s narratives. As discussed in Chapter 1, narratives and identities are inter-twined (cf. De Fina & Georgakopoulou, 2015; Eder, 2009). The European identity crisis, then, is a crisis of narratives; narratives that have been left uncontested are now questioned and there is a retreat into essentialist othering practices to strengthen the identity in crisis. The fixed canon is that Europe developed through the Greek, the Romans, and the Christians to become what it is today, a ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’ society. In the context of this narrative, Europeans see themselves as the ‘most advanced’, the ‘most modern’, the teacher of other, ‘less advanced’ societies. In this Europe, immigrants are seen as such for multiple generations, never fully arriving in Europe if they are marked as Other by their religion or skin colour. And yet, this canon does not hold true if we revisit accounts of European history. The result is a question mark in place of the European identity, as the fixed canon is contested. How ‘proud’ can one be, how ‘criticising’ of the so-called continents past must one be? To go beyond the circle of self-praise and self-critique that I have discussed in the first section of this chapter through the stand-still of (anti-)Eurocentrism, I have proposed a move towards multiple narratives. If we were to acknowledge the plurality of histories, we would also allow for a re-narration of European identities in the plural.

4. Queer-Narrating European Identities

But beyond our heading, it is necessary to recall ourselves not only to the other heading, but also perhaps to the other of the heading, that is to say, to a relation of identity with the other that no longer obeys the form, the sign, or the logic of the heading. (Derrida, 1992, p. 15)

Multiple narratives, or what I have called a plurality of histories, allow for fluid identities. To explore what fluid identities mean in this context, I will apply a queer theoretical approach to the study of European narratives. Queer theory has, in this thesis, been conceptualised as transcending and opening binaries. While it was first used to go beyond dichotomous constructions of men and women, it has also been applied to other constructs as seen with El-Tayeb’s (2011) work on queering ethnicity. The construction that I aim to queer is identity building alongside lines of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that is visible in the fixed European canon as discussed in Chapter 2. Based on the argument that identity is a narrative construction, which I elaborated on based on Eder (2009), I will argue that an opening of history towards multiple narratives will lead to queered and fluid identities that do not need ‘us’ and ‘them’ binaries as their foundation. The goal is to rethink ways in which the European identity crisis is conceptualised. Derrida’s (1992) ‘the other of the heading’ can also be read as a response to uncertainties of European identity. The ‘headings’ have been the subject of different interpretations, which will shortly be discussed in the second part of this chapter. I will then attempt an interpretation of ‘the other of the heading’ in the context of queered ‘us’ and ‘them’ perceptions, to argue that to go ‘beyond the modern tradition’, and to narrate our way out of the present identity crisis, we need to re-tell (a) tale(s) of Europe.

4. 1. Queering Present Binaries and the Power of Fluid Identities

Fluid identities can be imagined if we are ready to transcend essentialist ‘us’ and ‘them’ constructions and allow for a plurality of histories. To make this argument, I will apply queer theory in this subchapter, conceptualised as discussed alongside Butler (1997, 2002), Anzaldúa (2007) and El-Tayeb (2011). I will queer the fixed European canon on two levels. The first step is to include queer voices in the canon, to queer the canon, and thus allow for a plurality of histories. Secondly, I will queer identity constructions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ by discussing their role in methodological nationalism, their role as essentialising agents, and the role of the in-between in allowing for multiple and fluid identities.

Queering the canon, firstly, means to listen to unrepresented voices. Interesting to note here is the ‘demographic’ of the people quoted in the different sections. While in the chapter on European identity and its fixed canon I quoted mostly, if not solely, European men (Derrida’s distinct positionality will be treated in the next subchapter), this subchapter is based on the conceptualisation solely of women. While the gender of the person writing a text does or at least should not matter, opening the canon to silenced voices does include opening the academic canon to female and non-binary people. This step in itself is queering the canon and allowing for a plurality of histories as it allows for more voices to tell their distinct narratives.

The accounts of ‘us’ and ‘them’ used for European identity building are linked to nationalistic practices and to conceptualise Europe as more than a nation, we need to break with this binarism. In identity building processes that are close to nationalistic tendencies, or are conceptualised with the lens of methodological nationalism, only singular and fixed identities are thinkable. These identities are linked to the narratives nation-states tell about themselves and are in need of clear, often binarism-based notions such as in-group and out-group. This became visible in the discussion of the fixed European canon. If we go beyond essentialist notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that have been established in/for national contexts, multiple cultural and social identifications become thinkable as single identifications lose their importance. The construction of the fixed European narrative reminded of national accounts – and yet the motto of the EU (2019) is ‘unity in diversity’. While this motto might be understood in terms of diversity of European nation-states that together form the EU and certainly excludes countries that are not part of the EU, this motto could also include those who are now perceived as European Others within Europe. Diversity does not need to stop at a religion diverging from a shared Christian past, as this past was object to different filters and idealisations.

Identity constructions alongside notions ‘us’ and ‘them’, in Europe, are essentialist and fixated, which stands in contrast to lived realitites. ‘Us’ implies the existence of ‘them’, namely those that are not part of said ‘us’ and, thus, make clear ‘our’ boundaries. The same can and has been said about ‘men’ and ‘women’ on the social level of gender (cf. Butler, 2002). For heteronormativity to work, it needed two genders that ‘complement’ each other and are, thus, constructed in a dichotomous manner. In a similar way, the nation needs a ‘them’ to be able to define its ‘us’. The in-between is silenced, as was apparent in the marginalisation of voices other than European in the fixed self-narrative. The in-between is, however, a very real part of every community and the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ do not need to be essentialist. If a third-generation immigrant is a person who is born in a European country, and whose parents have been born in this same European country, the term ‘immigrant’ becomes problematic. Identity is not fixed but fluid and while said ‘immigrant’ might identify with some aspects of their grandparents’ heritage, they will not know anything else as ‘normal’ than the world and reality they live in. The discrepancy between lived and narrated realities leads to identities in crisis.

The in-between is what holds the power to deconstruct essentialist ‘us’ and ‘them’ constructions to make way for a fluid perception of identities. Anzaldúa (2007) discusses the power of the in-between in the context of borderlands and she states that ‘mestizas’, the people born and raised in the borderlands, have a consciousness of their own. They are not bound to essentialist restrictions and perceive of their identity as fluid and multi-facetted. While following Butler’s (1997) objection to ‘proper objects’, queer theory would lose its power if applied to a mainstream identity, I argue that it can and should be used to queer the margins of said identity. This is going one step beyond El-Tayeb’s (2011) work of exploring the queer identities of minorities in Europe. I understand those same queer identities as queering the margins of what we understand as Europe, as their voices add to narratives of what Europe means.

The process of queering is thus visible on two levels. Firstly, the voices of marginalised and silenced people become heard as part of European narratives, adding to the plurality of histories discussed in Chapter 3. Secondly, the margins of essentialist ‘us’ and ‘them’ constructions are queered and thus rendered more transcendable and fluid. This conceptualisation will prove to break out of the circle of self-praise and self-critique and go ‘beyond the modern tradition’, as will be discussed in the last subchapter.

4. 2. ‘The Other of the Heading’

To go ‘beyond’ the fixed canon and essentialist identity constructions, and link my queer narrative-constructivist approach back to philosophical arguments around Europe, this subchapter will discuss Derrida’s (1991, 1992) ‘the other of the heading’. It is interesting to note, here, the distinct positionality of Derrida as born outside of Europe yet considering himself European. This position in itself is ‘queering’ the binary of ‘us’ and ‘them’. I have previously argued that Europe finds itself in an identity crisis because the fixed canon and fluid identities do not add up. Furthermore, the circle of (anti-)Eurocentrism added to the stand-still. Derrida’s speech was held in the same light, proposing a ‘beyond of the modern tradition’ that would redefine the meaning of Europe. While Derrida has answered to this crisis on multiple accounts, the discussion in this dissertation will revolve solely around his concept of ‘the other of the heading’. I am choosing the focus as such, because this concept, as I will interpret it, links back to queer conceptualisation of identity and the in-between. ‘The other of the heading’ is, as I understand it, describing fluid identities that are linked to a plurality of histories.

‘The other of the heading’ is introducing a third option to the deconstructed ‘the other heading’ and ‘heading of the other’, an option that re-interprets the concept of identity itself. ‘The other heading’ and ‘the heading of the other’ have been discussed as representing the binary structure at the basis of the European self-narrative. If we see the two concepts as representing Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism, ‘the other of the heading’ is Derrida’s (1992) proposition to break the cycle that left Europe in an identity crisis. ‘The other of the heading’ calls attention to the fact that every culture is already different with itself and homogenous conceptualisations are misleading as there is no single origin to a culture (cf. ibid., p. 9). If there is no single origin to culture, European identity constructions need to be revisited.

Both Naas (1992) and Gasché (2009) discuss the implications of Derrida’s critique and, after putting their emphasis on different points of Derrida’s argument, arrive at the same conclusion of the need for a reconceptualization of the notion of identity. Naas (1992) understands Derrida’s The Other Heading as a discussion of the politics of the example. Derrida’s critique is, for him, a critique of the discourse of and about Europe, as this ‘discourse [¼] presents Europe by means of a logic that was born and nurtured in Europe’ (ibid., p. xxxix). The critique of the politics of the example is thus a critique of the way in which Europe defined the setting for the example, Europe set the ‘rules of the game’. This could be seen in the discussion of social evolutionism and the modern versus traditional narrative, as well as Glendinning’s (2011) conceptualisations of the ‘world-wide-ization’ of European thought. To apply this critique, Naas (1992, p. xlvii) states that ‘Derrida thus seeks a re-definition of European identity that includes respect for both universal values and difference – since one without the other will simply repeat without submitting to critique the politics of the example.’ Here again we see the pattern of ‘the other of the heading’ going beyond Eurocentric and anti-Eurocentric tendencies. Gasché (2009) comes to a similar interpretation of Derrida’s writings. What for this dissertation is most important in Gasché’s (2009, p. 291) reading of Derrida, is his understanding of the critique of the ‘spiritual unity’ of Europe. He argues for a redefinition of European cultural sources, in the plural, to move away from the assumption that ‘Europe originates in one source alone’ (ibid., p. 291). This could be seen in the previous chapter, arguing for a plurality of histories, in the discussion of changing from ‘Europe is the Bible and the Greeks’ (Levinas, 2001, p. 182) to Europe is ‘Greek, Christian and beyond’ (Derrida, 1997, p. 103). ‘The other of the heading’, for Gasché (ibid., p. 328) is: ‘the openness to an otherness that is so other that it cannot be categorized in terms of the self/other divide.’ Thus, it provides a new way of thinking about identity, that, I argue, is related to queerness.

‘The other of the heading’, as I understand it, is a queer concept. The concept was introduced by Derrida (1992) to queer the dichotomous accounts of European identity existing beforehand. The premise for this introduction is that culture is different to itself, and the study of difference is was queer theory best describes. Identity is not one, homogenous, fixed category. There is no single origin of culture and hence there is no single identity (ibid.). I agree with Derrida in so far and would like to propose a next step based on this argument. Not only is there no single source of identity. Conceptualising identity in thus far would still allow for a conceptualisation of Europe as ‘Europe is the Bible and the Greeks’ (Levinas, 2001, p. 182), as this allows for multiple sources. There is, however, also no single, linear succession of origins of culture. Different sources compete with each other, complement each other, influence each other – as was discussed in Chapter 3. Following Naas (1992, p. plvii) reading of Derrida, the way in which Europe is thinking about identity is just one example amongst others. There are other ways of thinking about identity, and I have proposed in this dissertation, that to go beyond the European dichotomous identity construction, we need to acknowledge the plurality of histories and narratives around Europe. If we allow for multiple narratives to become the canon of European identity, identity as a concept is opened, no longer runs alongside ‘us’ and ‘them’ constructions, following the call of ‘the other of the heading’, and recognises the in-between and is, hence, queered.


The motivation stimulating my research question was the troubled notion of European identity and the following identity crisis. What I have proposed is that Europe finds itself in an identity crisis because the way identity is defined does not hold up against history when told not only from a narrow European perspective. The way in which marginalised groups queer ethnicity in Europe has been empirically researched by, for example, El-Tayeb (2011), which prompted my thinking about applying the concept of queering to the notion of identity outside of the gender and sexuality field. What was queered theoretically in this dissertation was the binarism-based identity construction of Europe. It would be interesting to see empirical research in this same direction, looking at how perceived group borders are transcended in day to day life through projects or interactions. How is the ‘us’ and ‘them’ separation challenged and European identity claimed in its plurality? What are the political implications of a de-essentialising of European identity? Questions like these remain to be answered in future research. It would be interesting to see, furthermore, my own limitations overcome. This dissertation is one account amongst many about European narratives and represents a call for further re-narrations. My narration of identity and history is guided by my being an ‘uncontested’ European, having been born into an Austrian family that has solely European ancestors. Other positionalities and accounts of Europe would further the task of queering and narrating Europe in its plurality.

The question I have raised in the introduction reads: In what ways can an understanding of European identity and history be re-narrated to transcend binary identity constructions? To answer this question, I have introduced a queer narrative-constructivist approach to approach the meaning of ‘Europe’ and overcome methodological nationalism present in its study. Most important from the narrative side was the point that identities are constructed through the telling of narratives. The queer side of my theoretical framing was used to discuss fluid and multiple identities, recognising the in-between, and setting the basis for the discussion of European identity. What I have queered in this dissertation was by implication only European identity, however. The queering was aimed at the essentialist construction of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In the course of this dissertation ‘us’ Europeans has been found linked to perceptions of ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’. ‘Them’ non-Europeans, on the other hand, has been narratively linked to ‘traditional’ and ‘backwards’. To make this point I have outlined and criticised the fixed European canon, which constructs itself in a linear, binarism-based manner following nationalistic accounts of identity. This fixed European canon was the basis of the singular and essentialist identity, which in a cycle of Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism, has led to an identity crisis. European identity and history, I have argued, should be re-narrated in the plural, including narratives of those silenced in the fixed canon. Following the narrative approach to identity, this openness for multiple narratives would lead to multiple identifications and fluid identities. Before discussing Derrida’s (1992) ‘the other of the heading’ as a queer concept, I have queered the European canon by introducing queer voices to the canon, and deconstructing ‘us’ and ‘them’ conceptualisations of identity. ‘The other of the heading’ is a queer concept, I argued, because it describes the in-between, and because it recognises multiple sources to cultural identity. I have added to Derrida’s argument by discussing how Europe not only has more than one source but is, furthermore, not restricted to one linear succession of sources. European history has been told with a Eurocentric filter, and it is long time to revisit this narrative and open it up to a plurality of histories. Through opening the canon to a plurality rather than closing it off to a singularity of narratives, identity as a notion is rendered fluid and identity construction can be queered. Through a queering of their essentialisms, the boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ become transcendable, and the identification as European accessible not only to those with a Christian and European heritage. Those steps together, then, represent my theoretical contribution to a ‘beyond’ of the European identity crisis.

The research of difference, of the in-between, is where I have proposed in the above, lies the power to go beyond essentialist European identity. The cycle of Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism can be broken if we revisit the histories and narratives about, in, and of Europe. If we allow for fluid, queered identities and multiple identifications based on a plurality of interwoven histories, third generation immigrants are no longer immigrants, but Europeans, and Islam is no longer oppositional to Europe but has been part of its history – not least in a modernising role. In short, a plurality of histories and the queering of ‘us’ and ‘them’ borders go beyond essentialist identity constructions and, thus, render them transcendable.


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[1] For an elaboration on the link between modernity and coloniality see Mignolo (2011).