Boundaries Re-imagined in “Vermeer’s Hat”

In narrating Vermeer’s Hat, Timothy Brook emphasizes three distinct layers of agency. On the one hand, there is the world. This agent may seem like the most obvious of the three, but it entails a sort of global consciousness (or “collective heritage” (222)) which, he seems to say, did not exist before sometime near the beginning of the 17th Century. Second, there are individual people, such as Champaign and Vermeer, whose actions inevitably affect (and are affected by) their individual conceptions about that world. Finally, between these other two, comes the ‘nation-state’ – a large, conglomerate entity organized by the Peace of Westphalia in Europe, but also developed elsewhere with Brook calls “a similar intensification of state operations.” (224) So how then do these conceptions of ‘actors’ or ‘agents’ affect the way we narrate history?

Each of the higher agents, “the world” and “the state,” has ties with a rather nebulous process of drawing boundaries. Much like the classic ‘heap paradox’ in which a heap of sand is composed of many smaller grains – and the distinction between ‘grain’ and ‘heap’ becomes confused, our definitions of ‘nation-states’ ‘civilizations’ or other mass group identities likewise become blurred when we take into account the multifarious factors of language, culture, history, economics, among many others. Thus, when Brook uses the word “collective heritage” to suggest something we should strive for as unified ‘humanity’ the numerous dichotomies become even more blurred. Is this concept of unification a Western phenomenon? What about those who reject the idea? Are they excluded from the heritage?

The word that immediately comes to mind in this discussion is a recent neologism in the academic world: ‘Glocalism.’ The word implies a complex relationship between actions taken by individuals whose effects reach out to the nation-state, to the world, and then back to more individuals whose actions are influenced by the ‘global’ in a heterogeneous and fluid interplay. Vermeer himself makes the perfect example for Brook’s exploration into this ‘glocal’ hybridity. His paintings include layers of agency and consciousness that extend from the individual to the nation-state and finally to the global in a truly heterogeneous amalgam.

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About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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