The World Under Lockdown: Empty Spaces in the Photographs of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by Airin Rezazadeh Farahmand

Before 2020, we probably needed to rely on science-fiction movies and dystopian novels to imagine a global pandemic. By now, however, we are all well aware of what a world stricken by an infectious disease looks like. In late 2019, a number of pneumonia cases of unknown etiology were reported to the World Health Organization by Chinese authorities. Soon after, it was discovered that the cases were caused by a new virus (now familiar to all of us by the name COVID-19) that apparently has succeeded in crossing the species barriers. The anxieties over the rapid spread of this new virus was well reflected in the title of CNN’s report, published on 7 January 2020: “A mysterious virus is making China (and the rest of Asia) nervous. It’s not SARS, so what is it?”. This new virus was not nerve-wracking only for Asia. Proven to be highly contagious, it quickly turned into a global concern.  In the space of a few months, the virus caused a global pandemic, which is still on-going as I’m writing these lines today. 

Although the outbreak evoked different responses in different countries, the common reaction was the emergence of new norms and regulations. Handshaking was considered too dangerous. Face masks and gloves became part of daily outfits. Access to public spaces was limited and large gatherings were prohibited. The outbreak not only heralded fundamental changes in the ways people used to live and interact with each other but also changed the meaning of social spaces drastically. With people being advised to stay at home, work remotely and avoid unnecessary commuting, internet communication replaced face-to-face interaction. The ramifications of living in this new world, highly reliant on virtual spaces, were reflected in a number of cultural practices including photography. Photos capturing empty public spaces as the result of the imposed lockdowns proliferated social media soon after the start of the outbreak.  The photos of these emptied out spaces became an effective way of documenting the visual impact of the pandemic on our daily lives.  Like most crises captured in modern times, the camera not only became a tool of documentation, providing factual accounts of what was going on in the world, but also shaped a visual narrative through which the pandemic was framed. 

It is important to note that emptiness should not be taken at its face value, as it is never devoid of cultural and social significance. Courtney J. Campbell,  Allegra Giovine and Jennifer Keating, for instance, in their book Empty Spaces: perspectives on emptiness in modern history, show how emptiness is not merely an indicator of the absence of the usual content of life, but rather  a sign of disruption in more abstract qualities that are deeply implicated in our economic, political and social systems (5). Similarly, by depicting cities without human subjects and deprived of their social function, the photos of empty public spaces reflect on our anxieties of living in a highly globalized world, where the likelihood of a biological disaster threatening our very existence as human species seems more real than ever. These anxieties are not a new phenomenon. In fact, they have been repeatedly depicted in fiction, most notably in post-apocalyptic and dystopian movies. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the images of empty spaces depicting the recent pandemic bear strong resemblance to the already-existing ones in popular culture. The iconic opening sequence of Francis Lawrence’s 2007 movie I am Legend starts with an aerial shot of New York City that is peculiarly vacant. The protagonist journeys through the deserted streets of the city which have clearly fallen into decay and have been taken over by nature. Similarly, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), uses the same strategy to show how the spread of the virus has disrupted normal daily life. In shots that interestingly share a great deal of similarity to the photos depicting the recent pandemic, we see empty gyms, conference rooms, churches and stations indicating the interruption of the normal flow of everyday life.

In his analysis of the American zombie series The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010–) and the British production Survivors (BBC, 2008–10), Martin Walter explains that emptiness in these types of movies is used as a way of commenting on the structures of our contemporary capitalist society.  According to Walter, the familiarity of these spaces raises critical questions about the efficiency of the previous order which has clearly failed. As he puts it, “the repeated motif of journeying through empty landscapes conveys ideological viewpoints on capitalist spaces. These spaces increasingly address both a ‘perturbed familiarity’ and discourses of global (in)security” (134). Therefore, emptiness in these movies raises critical concerns about the reliability of the capitalist system that has left us vulnerable to threats such as a global pandemic. Similarly, Dora Apel argues, “by depicting our technologically advanced civilization in states of ruination and decay, post-apocalyptic narratives render our own society as other and encourage us to ask whether the empire of capital represents lasting progress or a road to decline” (152).

The fear of the so-called “next pandemic”, the one that will bring humanity to the end, is engraved in the popular culture of our time. The recurring theme of dystopian futures as a result of human activity in post-apocalyptic fiction, mirrors concerns over many pressing issues among which globalization, rapid technological advances, public health, safety, surveillance, (in)security and the possibility of human extinction stand out.  The photos of empty cities following the corona crisis, therefore, rely in part on the familiar iconography of the previous cultural products to form their visual narrative and evoke a sublime sense of fear in the viewer. Emptiness, in this context, is a key visual trope that addresses the same concerns and issues regarding the structures of our contemporary societies that are raised in fictional works. It gains its meaning when the depicted public spaces are compared to their pre-pandemic state when they were filled with people. In this sense, emptiness becomes a crucial aesthetic tool that dysfunctionalizes our social spaces, presenting them as eerie and uncanny. Freud used the term ‘uncanny’ (‘unheimlich’ in German, literally ‘un-homely’) to suggest a psychological origin for the eerie, peculiar feeling of fear that arises from the confrontation with something familiar that has suddenly turned into its opposite. Accordingly, the uncanny is located on the margin between real and unreal, constantly stressing the boundaries between the two. Similarly, in the photos of empty public spaces, popular destinations marked by their crowd suddenly have turned into unfamiliar venues with almost no human presence. The familiarity that lies at the heart of these barely recognizable spaces, stripped off their social function, adds to the uncanny quality of these photos. 

In his seminal work The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler uses Freud’s notion to explain the spatial characteristics of the places that can provoke this feeling of uncanniness in the visitors. As Vidler explains, what stimulates the feeling of uncanny in the space, is not related to particular spatial conformations as this feeling is not a property of the space itself. Rather, it is in its aesthetic dimension and is created when a space that pretends to offer the utmost security suddenly opens itself to the secret intrusion of terror (3). Uncanny as an aesthetic quality of space is what renders it strange due to an alien presence. It is, as Vidler puts it, “a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming” (11). If we look at the photos of the pandemic, emptiness seems to create a liminal space between reality and fantasy. Although the settings have remained the same, the absence of the usual crowd indicates the presence of an alien Other that disallows us to freely enter into these spaces. Being marked as unsafe, these public spaces, without their crowd, look almost like private properties. The emptiness in the photos, therefore, seem to ignite curiosity in the viewers to ask themselves what will happen to public spaces? What will remain of them? These questions are indeed important since they guide us to begin thinking about our conditions as human beings living in the twenty-first century. The photos, therefore, become the spatial visualization of a breakdown in our contemporary world systems by suggesting that emptiness might become the new normal. By visually referencing the already-existing apocalyptic images in popular culture, they build on our contemporary anxieties regarding the possibility of human extinction by emphasizing the human absence in urban settings. It may be too naive to believe that such a thing would be the case. However, even if we accept this prophecy as a form of cultural exaggeration, the criticism that is directed towards the capitalist system that has shaped our century is still very valid and mirrors deep concerns that are inherently embedded in the zeitgeist of our era.

Works Cited:

Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (MIT press, 1992).

Courtney J. Campbell, Allegra Giovine, and Jennifer Keating, eds., introduction to Empty Spaces: Perspectives on Emptiness in Modern History ( University of London Press, 2019).

Dora Apel, Beautiful terrible ruins: Detroit and the anxiety of decline (Rutgers University Press, 2015).

Martin Walter, “Landscapes of loss: the semantics of empty spaces in contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction” in Empty Spaces: Perspectives on emptiness in modern history, eds. Courtney J.Campbell, Allegra Giovine, and Jennifer Keating (London University Press, 2019), 133-51.

Black Panther Transmedia: The Revolution Will Not Be Streamed

Written by Niels Niessen

The following text is the introduction of a longer essay published in the Journal for Cinema and Media Studies (2021), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/j/jcms/18261332.0060.506/–black-panther-transmedia-the-revolution-will-not-be-streamed?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Black Panther figure of Marvel’s comic book universe were both created in 1966. There was no direct link, however, between the political organization that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton launched in October that year and the introduction of the first superhero character of African descent a few months earlier in May, in an issue of Fantastic Four (vol. 1, no. 52), which was authored by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Introducing the Black Panther in Fantastic Four, no. 52 (Marvel Comics, 1966).

As Lee states in a 2009 interview:

It was a strange coincidence because, at the time I did the Black Panther, there was a political party in the country— mostly Black people— and they were called The Black Panthers. And I didn’t think of that at all! It had nothing to do with our character, although a lot of people thought there was some tie- in. And I was really sorry— maybe if I had to do it over again, I’d given him another name, because I hate that confusion to be caused. But it really had nothing to do with the then-existing Black Panthers (cited in Clark 2018).  

The 2018 film Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler also does not make explicit reference to the Black Panther Party. But the film’s promotional materials do indirectly invoke the historical reality in which both Black Panthers appeared in the late 1960s cultural air. One of the film’s promotional posters depicts T’Challa— the reigning Black Panther— in visual citation of the iconic 1967 portrait of Huey P. Newton, seated on a throne, a rifle in one hand, a spear in the other (a photo that in turn was a mockery of colonialist portraiture). Moreover, one of the film’s trailers contains remixed samples of Gil Scott- Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televized,” a track from 1970, which is also the year Black Panther Party membership reached a peak. In this trailer, as the Black Panther flies across the screen, a male voice- over cites the following, tuned to the beat of Vince Staples’s “BagBak” (2017):

            You will not be able to stay home, brother.
            You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out. . . .

            The revolution will not be televised. . . .
            The revolution will be live.

Marvel thus links its Black Panther universe to the long history of African American struggle. These offhand gestures beg the question of how Black Panther’s mainstream Afrofuturism holds up to the political activism it invokes. Does the film merely commodify revolutionary discourse, and wouldn’t such commodification prevent the film from constituting an “act of civic imagination,” as Henry Jenkins has called the film? (Jenkins 2018) Doesn’t Black Panther’s production by Marvel, a subsidiary of Disney, by definition preempt the film from its claim to politics— especially when recalling the imperative of turn-of-the-1970s Third Cinema that a political film must also be made politically? And how to square Black Panther’s imagination of a never-colonized Black nation with Achille Mbembe’s analysis of “Blackness” as a discursive product of colonization?

Addressing these questions, it is important to acknowledge the wide acclaim Black Panther has received from within the African American community. During a special event in Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ta-Nehisi Coates described the film as “Star Wars for Black People,” sharing with the audience that he “didn’t realize how much [he] needed the film, a hunger for a myth that [addressed] feeling separated and feeling reconnected [to Africa]” (cited in Beta 2018). Similarly, Tre Johnson writes that Black Panther’s greatest legacy is that Black viewers find “a cultural oasis that feels like nothing we’ve seen before” (cited in Johnson 2018). And as Jenkins observes, Black Panther offered “a shared myth desperately needed in the age of Trump: the film inspired many different forms of participatory culture . . . as people fused its iconography into their personal and social identity” (Jenkins 2018).

So yes, following its release, Black Panther has undeniably manifested itself as a political-cultural event, but this does not, of course, prevent a critical reading of the film. That critique is the gravitational point of this essay. I argue that, taken on its own, the Black Panther film only marginally integrates its offhand promotional references to the history of African American resistance. Despite its multiracial cast and strong female characters, Black Panther at the end of the day is built on a conventional Hollywood logic, while its plot purports an anthropocentric American Dream narrative in which humanity masters nature through technology. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Technology as second nature in Black Panther (Marvel Studios, 2018).

Yet the film cannot just be considered on its own. The film emerges out of and inscribes itself into a transmedia franchise that in recent decades has evolved as a platform for rethinking African American identity in the post–civil rights era. This has been the case under the authorship of Christopher Priest (who wrote the 1998 Black Panther comics volume on which the movie was largely based), Coates (who picked up the comics’ authorship in 2016, starting with A Nation Under Our Feet), and Kendrick Lamar (who cocurated the film’s soundtrack, including the hit single “All the Stars,” performed with the American singer SZA). As Coates writes elsewhere, in Between the World and Me (2015), the dreamed synergy between nature and technology at the heart of the American Dream is an all-too-human construction torching the planet, socially and literally (Coates 2015).

Figure 3. Black Panther’s science fiction of a nation shielded from global heating.

The Black Panther film revels in such phantasmagoric synergy, telling a fairy tale of an extractive utopia, while it has no sight for the exploitation of bodies and ecosystems that marks the reality of every mining economy (Figure 3). In that light Black Panther is like, say, Apple’s new American Dream, in which technology is posited as second nature and which was equally designed in California. Only when the film is considered in the light of its broader transmedia universe does its superhero texture open to the speculative potential that Michael Gillespie and others have embraced as central to film Blackness. As I will argue in the final section, “The Fire in the Sky,” at those moments Black Panther invites its transmedia traveler to think through what Mbembe calls the “Becoming Black of the world” (Mbembe 2017).

Niels Niessen is a Researcher in the Arts & Culture department.

For the full article and bibliographic references see:

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/j/jcms/18261332.0060.506/–black-panther-transmedia-the-revolution-will-not-be-streamed?rgn=main;view=fulltext

“My Age Really Doesn’t Matter”: Norms on Young Motherhood

By Marijke Sniekers

This article has been part of the ‘Women On The Timelineprotect, initiated by Anouk Wolkotte and Charlotte Hermanns.

Daniëlle[1], an 18-year-old mother, speaks of becoming a mother: “It really doesn’t matter whether you are young or old. It’s all new and will be hard at times.”Young mothers continuously need to prove that they are great moms, successful and that they deserve respect like any other woman/mother/youngster. They often need to fight stigmas and stereotypes of being incapable of raising children, being a moral and socioeconomic problem and a risk to themselves and their children.

The ‘problem’ of young motherhood (under the age of 24 years) in the Netherlands seems not so big, considering the low numbers of young mothers in the country. Teenage fertility rates in the Netherlands are the second lowest in Europe, and among the 10 lowest in the world. In Dutch society in the 1950s, young motherhood was common. The mean childbearing age for women has risen from 24 years (1970) to 30 years (2019). Nowadays, young motherhood is uncommon and undesirable.

Until 1955, women were legally ‘incompetent’ and could be laid off from civil service once they married. Equal pay for equal work was legalised in that year. Since then, norms about women’s economic independence have started to change. From the late 1980s, women have entered the labour market in large numbers, leading to current high labour market participation of women. Unfortunately, women still receive unequal pay for equal work, experience an unequal gender and age bias in selection for and promotion at work (‘glass ceiling’), and face discriminatory practices at work due to pregnancy. Expectations for women have not changed much in terms of work-care balance and the gender division of labour. Women are commonly expected to become mothers.

Dutch norms on motherhood, education and employment constitute a motherhood ideology of viewing women as child carers and men as breadwinners. This means that mothers should be the main carers, should always be present for their children, and should focus primarily on their children’s needs. Unlike in most European countries, heterosexual couples in the Netherlands commonly conform to the 1.5 wage earner model, according to which men usually work full-time and women part-time in so-called ‘mother contracts’ of work during children’s school hours. Women generally perform the unpaid care and household tasks, even when they also have full-time paid employment. Formally, parental leave days have increased for fathers in paid employment. However, in reality are men reluctant to take leave, because of traditional role patterns at home, because work culture does not facilitate it and because of a lack of role models.

Young mothers are caught in the middle of such stereotypical, dominant gender patterns and norms around motherhood, care and employment. On the one hand, as youngsters they are expected to be in school and continue with paid employment. On the other hand, as mothers they are expected to stay at home and care for the children. You are a good mother if you take care of your child yourself and are there for your child. Young people are expected to complete the highest possible education, after which they find a job at that level and in that sector. After that they can settle down with their partner and have children.

Such dilemmas and norms regarding the socioeconomic independence of young mothers were the focus of my PhD study, for which I spend time with young mothers. Daniëlle (quoted above) explains that any first-time parent experiences difficulties and struggles with new responsibilities and structure in daily life. Femke explains how lack of support from a partner made raising her child difficult, because she could not share the responsibility with someone else: “I had to rely on myself and have been sacrificing my own needs”. Manon and Agnes say that combining school and work with caring for children is hard, since their parents cannot babysit (they have their own jobs) and day-care is too expensive or does not match their working hours on weekends and evenings as a nurse. Their stories illustrate that it is not their young age, but circumstances such as being a new mom, a single parent or working parent that led to problems in their lives.

Attending education or going to work is often a practical puzzle for many young mothers, especially single ones. Manon says: “I had a night shift at my work, and when I came back, I made my child his sandwiches, took my child to school and then his teacher said: ‘You look bad.’ And I said, ‘I haven’t slept yet.’ That was hard.” Some women say that they do not have children to have them cared for by day-care or relatives. They feel a strong need and pressure from people around them to be present for their child, instead of completing their education or working. Floor wants to be a role model to her child, which is expected of her from a motherhood perspective. However, this is ‘bad’ from a motherhood ideal, because working and earning wages means she cannot take care of her child herself all day. Even with policies and subsidies in place, young mothers still face contradicting norms. Studying and working parents can receive subsidies for day-care, but schools and the state do not offer free childcare facilities, so young parents have to pay for private childcare services. Policies and organisational structures that are supposed to increase young people’s socioeconomic independence are, in reality, counterproductive.

Schools, particularly, are not used to students with children. Daphne says: “I was lucky to give birth during Christmas holiday, so I could go back to school two weeks later.” Other student-mothers are lucky to have a teacher that gives extensions for deadlines or extra assignments when the women had to stay home, because their children were ill. However, schools are usually not very flexible in assignments and attendance, and do not provide for maternity leave. Student-mothers do not want any study delay, because that means that they will have to pay back their student grant. Getting into debt because of an education is not a pleasant prospect.

Student grants together with fears of not completing the education within the time limit required for the grant, make young mothers often choose for a practical vocational study (BBL) (instead of theoretical vocational, Bachelor’s or Master’s studies). “I’m smart enough to do a Bachelor’s degree, but my child will be two and I want another child. Combining a Bachelor and a child is harder than doing vocational studies with a child, and vocational is fine too for a job and raising two children” says Valerie.

Young mothers like her are more likely to opt for the practical vocational education (BBL), because at the short term it provides them with work experience, job guarantee and wages they need to provide for their children. For better long-term opportunities, it is, once having started to work, hard for young mothers to get back to school after a few years when their children have reached the school-age of four years. This means they get stuck in a low paid job in which they can hardly plan their own working hours and have to work weekend and night shifts. A low paid job also means that they need to pay all their earnings to the day-care centre. Furthermore, the jobs young mothers end up with when doing a practical vocational study are often jobs in health care of elderly care, affirming traditional gender roles of women as carers.

Despite the developments since the fifties and the policies and subsidies that are in place, these young mother’s stories show the ongoing need to contest gender and age stereotypes leading to inequalities. We need to recognise different values and experiences. Even though young mothers exert agency, this is not enough to reconcile conflicting norms on their own and solve structural problems individually. Dominant norms should not stand in the way of people who walk different pathways than what is commonly expected. This column is based on the results of the study Acknowledging the agency of young mothers: A qualitative study into young, motherhood and socioeconomic independence by Marijke Sniekers


[1] The names of the women are pseudonyms.

The History of Feminism(s) Around the Globe

Women on the Timeline, a project initiated by two of our very own Arts and Culture students, Anouk Wolkotte and Charlotte Hermanns, aims to honour the contributions of women and non-binary folks to our society. Because many of those are still missing in our collective memory, Charlotte and Anouk wish to create a diverse community to redirect the spotlight, with the hope to inspire young women and girls. They publish articles written by their team of permanent writers thrice a week. Guests are invited to contribute as well! The history of feminism and topics related to diversity and inclusion are explored in a monthly column, which we will be publishing on this Culture Weekly website. Find them on Instagram: @w_o_t_t   Facebook: @WomenOnTheTimeline Mail: womenonthetimeline@gmail.com and contact them if this project sparks your interest!

We now present the first article of the column:

The History of Feminism(s) Around the Globe – Written by Saskia Bultman

When you think of feminism nowadays your mind might go to #metoo, pink ‘pussy’ hats or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED talk on ‘We should all be feminists’. But what are the roots of this huge movement? Maybe the best way to talk about the history of feminism, is to look at how this history has been told in the past, and how it is told today.
The history of feminism is traditionally told – in Western countries, school books and popular culture – as a series of ‘waves’. In this narrative, first-wave feminism (roughly late 19th-early 20th century) was focused on overcoming legal obstacles, and focused on issues such as the right to vote, or, suffrage. Second-wave feminism (1960s-1970s) had a more cultural focus, and criticized sexist institutions and practices of discrimination, focusing on issues such as the limited expectations of marriage and motherhood for women, reproductive rights such as access to abortion and birth control, rape, domestic violence and equal pay. Third-wave feminism (1990s-2000s) focused on a more intersectional understanding of feminism, criticizing former feminist movements for excluding non-white and working-class women. Besides becoming more inclusive of women of colour, the third wave also focused on sexuality, redefining women and girls as powerful and in control. Fourth-wave feminism (beginning in the early 2010s) focuses on issues such as body shaming, rape culture, #metoo, trans* rights, disability, and the representation of marginalized women in politics, culture and business.
The roots of this series of ‘waves’ are commonly traced back to a standard cast of well-known figures. Traditional histories of feminism begin, for example, with seventeenth-century writers, such as Aphra Behn (a playwright who depicted men and women as equals) and Sarah Fyge
(who, as a teenager, wrote an impassioned poem in defence of women in response to an incredibly misogynist piece of verse by Robert Gould), who drew on Protestant religious traditions to claim women’s equality. The next figures to appear in this version of the story, are those who were inspired by the ideas of equality in the eighteenth-century American and French revolutions, such as the French activist Olympe de Gouges. In response to The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which asserted, in 1789, that all men ‘are born and remain free and equal in rights’, de Gouges wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, arguing that women should be included in the new revolutionary ideas on equality for all. Next, traditional narratives often move on to the nineteenth-century suffragettes, such as the Pankhursts in England and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the United States (who campaigned for women’s right to vote), down to later twentieth-century figures such as Betty Friedan (whose work on the discontent of American housewives is said to have sparked the second wave of feminism) and Gloria Steinem (who criticized societal beauty standards in an exposé for which she went undercover as a Playboy ‘Bunny’).
In later years, figures such as the eighteenth-century author Phyllis Wheatley (the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry) and Sojourner Truth (a black abolitionist who demanded equal rights for African-American women) were added to the story.
While all of these figures are undeniably important (as is witnessed by their achievements), the traditional history of feminism remains predominantly white, and focused on the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly England and the United States.
Recently, however, the history of feminism has acquired a broader focus. As Lucy Delap argues in her recent (and really quite thrilling) book Feminisms: A Global History, there isn’t just one story of feminism to be told. Instead, there have been many feminisms, which were all shaped, from the outset, by women and men of varying historical contexts, nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities, ideological backgrounds, classes and ages. The metaphor of the ‘wave’, which presents feminist history as neatly progressing from one set of concerns to another, doesn’t do justice to this complexity. What’s more, it limits our focus to one part of the world.
As Delap shows, throughout at least the last 250 years, in other parts of the world things were happening that were just as much a part of the history of feminism. In 1886, for example, when women were campaigning for the right to vote in Europe and the United States, an anonymous woman in what is now Ghana (then under British rule) wrote a rousing letter to local newspaper Western Echo:
We Ladies of Africa in general are not only sadly misrepresented but are made the foot-ball of every white seal that comes to our Coast … We have been sadly abused by people of such description, and because we have said nothing they continue to abuse us with impunity … Although we have not white or angelic faces we are capable of as high a degree of culture as any white lady.
Examples such as this, from non-Western thinkers (which Delap’s book is packed with), are not often included in traditional histories of feminism. They are important, however, because they illuminate the diversity of the movement and its concerns, and highlight the contributions of non-Western feminists, which are often overlooked. Rather than suffrage, this anonymous
woman’s concern was with an ‘African’ feminism that countered colonial ideas about women of colour.
This is all the more significant, considering that suffragettes in Europe and the United States – who are popularly depicted as the ‘only’ feminists active at the time – often expressed colonial attitudes in their activist work. When Dutch feminist Aletta Jacobs travelled through a series of African and Asian countries in the early twentieth century, for instance, campaigning for women’s right to vote, she characterized herself as a ‘motherly friend’ to the inhabitants of South-Africa, who she described as ‘children … who only need to be led’, as historian Ena Jansen has shown. As we can see, placing different feminist histories alongside each other can make us aware of the divergent struggles women around the globe had – which leads to a whole new narrative.
Viewing feminism in a global framework can also make its history less Eurocentric. With regard to women’s right to higher education, for example, Delap points out that the same developments were taking place all across the world: Britain’s first university college for women opened in 1869, and in Brazil women obtained the right to enter higher education only a decade later, in 1879. Connections like this give us a fuller understanding of the movement’s history, and prevent us from taking Europe or the West as our only reference point.
In her book, Delap calls for a new approach, which involves placing stories of feminisms from different parts of the world and different periods of history alongside each other, and studying their interactions and linkages, as well as the ways in which they were at odds with each other. This leads to a history of the movement that includes figures such as Alexandra Kollontai (an early-twentieth-century Russian revolutionary who advocated for free love) alongside groups
such as the French ‘femmes en lutte’ (who, quite differently, emphasized the maternal qualities of women in the 1970s and 1980s), and figures such as German feminist Karin Schrader-Klebert (who envisioned a universal feminism arguing that ‘women are the Negroes of all nations’) next to African-American activist Frances Beal (who, around the same time, in 1974, envisioned a far narrower brand of feminism when she termed white women the ‘economic enemies’ of black women, saying: ‘If your mother worked in a white woman’s kitchen, she knows what I mean’).
Taking a global view also offers alternative starting points for the history of feminism. Rather than with seventeenth-century English writers or nineteenth-century suffragettes, it might begin in Sierra Leone in 1792, when female householders were given the right to vote (a right they lost when the country came under British colonial rule in 1808), or at the Rosetta Women’s Conference held in 1799, when Egyptian women came together to discuss their gendered roles in society, as Delap shows in her book.
From ‘waves’ of feminism and (white) feminist ‘foremothers’ to the expansion of the feminist canon with other important women (of colour), the telling of the history of feminism has changed over time. Hopefully the new focus on the global history of the movement will lead to new information being uncovered about the concerns, struggles and accomplishments of feminists, past and present, around the globe. Perhaps the stories of Women on the Timeline, which focus on women from all parts of the world and all periods of history, will lead readers to make new, unexpected connections, and prompt them to read about the achievements of women who have been forgotten, but who played an important role in the worldwide history of feminism. Every reader will be able to determine, for herself, which histories, and which feminisms, resonate the most.

Van clusterfuck tot autoseks: hoe Rob van Essen ons voorbij het postmodernisme (ver)voert

By Dennis Kersten

Hans Demeyer en Sven Vitse publiceerden onlangs Affectieve crisis, literair herstel, een grondige studie naar het prozawerk van jonge Nederlandstalige schrijvers. De gevoelsstructuur die zich daarin manifesteert heeft veel weg van wat vooral in het buitenland “metamodernisme” wordt genoemd. Maar reageren alleen millennials op het vermeende einde van het postmodernisme?

“Alles in het leven draait om seks. Behalve seks zelf. Dat draait om macht.” Die uitspraak wordt wel eens toegeschreven aan Oscar Wilde, die hem vast en zeker graag aan zijn beroemde witticisms had toegevoegd. Hij had ook perfect bij het werk van de auteur van The Picture of Dorian gepast. Gelukkig hoefde Wilde niet meer mee te maken hoe in een toekomst gedomineerd door kunstmatige intelligentie mensen seks bedrijven met zelfrijdende auto’s, zoals gebeurt in een veelbesproken scène in Rob van Essens roman De goede zoon (2018). Seks met state of the art technologie, wat zegt dát over mensen en macht? Wilde zou waarschijnlijk de voorkeur hebben gegeven aan intelligente kunstmatigheid.

Een “slimme” autostoel die een nietsvermoedende passagier tot een hoogtepunt brengt (“Geen zorgen, ik ben zelfreinigend meneer”): het is zowel een geestige als serieuze scène in een roman die op vele andere plekken en manieren tussen tegenstellingen heen en weer beweegt. Van Essen zou in dat opzicht wel eens een “post-postmodern” boek geschreven kunnen hebben. Het is zeker een intrigerend voorbeeld van een werk waarin belangrijke vragen worden opgeworpen over de erfenis van het postmodernisme – zowel in de beeldende kunst als de literatuur. De verteller en hoofdpersonage van De goede zoon ziet overal een getransformeerd postmodernisme om zich heen: “Ik heb het postmodernisme nog meegemaakt (postmoderne gebouwen staan tegenwoordig op de monumentenlijst zag ik laatst in een krant staan) en we leven nu in een post-tijd, een post-iets…” (41).

Dit soort passages, maar ook de vorm van Van Essens roman, nodigen uit tot een lezing in het licht van een discussie die filosofen en cultuurwetenschappers bezighoudt: die over het zogenaamde “metamodernisme,” de steeds populairder wordende benaming van wat er op het postmodernisme volgt. Of misschien beter: van wat er naast het postmodernisme is ontstaan en qua dominantie dat eerdere paradigma heeft ingehaald.

Het beste boek

De goede zoon, winnaar van de Libris Literatuurprijs 2019, speelt zich af in een toekomstige tijd, een periode van kunstmatige intelligentie, surveillancetechnologie en een basisinkomen voor iedereen. Het naamloze hoofdpersonage is een 60-jarige schrijver van onder andere “plotloze thrillers” die vanuit het niets een telefoontje krijgt van Lennox, een vriend uit de jaren waarin zij beiden meededen aan een werkverschaffingsproject in het gemeentearchief van Amsterdam. Lennox belt namens een andere collega van destijds, Bonzo (a.k.a. De Meester), een crimineel die aan geheugenverlies lijdt en om die reden niet meer weet waar hij een kostbare verzameling diamanten moet zoeken. De verteller moet hem helpen zijn herinneringen terug te krijgen, maar Bonzo, die ergens in Zuid-Europa leeft, eist dat hij ook een nieuwe identiteit voor hem schrijft.

Het is Lennox’ taak om het hoofdpersonage mee te voeren naar het zuiden; onderweg geeft hij het stokje over aan een voorgeprogrammeerde zelfrijdende auto. Deze “Jerôme” doet ook dienst als empatische therapeut door met de verteller over diens herinneringen en gevoelens te praten. Het hoofdpersonage blikt tussen de bedrijven door terug op zijn tijd op het gemeentearchief, maar ook op het meer recente verleden. Daarin bezocht hij jarenlang wekelijks zijn dementerende moeder.

Metamodernisme

Over het metamodernisme is de afgelopen jaren al veel nagedacht en geschreven. Toen Timotheus Vermeulen en Robin van den Akker in 2010 met hun “Notes on metamodernism”[1] iedereen uitnodigden om de manieren waarop het metamodernisme tot uiting komt in kaart te brengen, was de respons overweldigend. Ze startten tegelijkertijd een website, ook Notes on Metamodernism genaamd, waarop onderzoekers analyses konden delen van kunst en cultuur waarin de metamoderne sensibiliteit zich manifesteert.

In hun oorspronkelijke artikel doen Vermeulen en Van den Akker een eerste aanzet tot een definitie van die sensibiliteit. Het metamodernisme, een gevoelsstructuur opgekomen in een periode van ingrijpende maatschappelijke gebeurtenissen en mondiale crises (Vermeulen en Van den Akker schrijven elders dat we afstevenen op een “clusterfuck of world-historical proportions”),[2] wordt gekarakteriseerd door “the oscillation between a typically modern commitment and a markedly postmodern detachment”. “Oscillation” is een sleutelbegrip hier: metamoderne kunst gaat heen en weer tussen verschillende, soms tegengestelde posities. “Inspired by a modern naïvité yet informed by postmodern skepticism, the metamodern discours consciously commits itself to an impossible possibility,” schrijven Vermeulen en Van den Akker. De metamoderne mens streeft naar het eigenlijk onmogelijke – en wéét dat ook.

Alison Gibbons, die samen met Vermeulen en Van den Akker publiceert, is een belangrijke stem in de discussie over de invloed van het metamodernisme op de hedendaagse Engelstalige roman. Zij schreef in 2019 een helder stuk in de Times Literary Supplement over de “cultural paradigm” die Vermeulen en Van dan Akker metamodern noemen en hoe deze zich aftekent in fictie van de jaren 1990 tot nu.[3] Aan de hand van een lezing van Ben Lerners 10:04 (2014) laat Gibbons zien dat metamoderne romans postmoderne technieken gebruiken om andere effecten te sorteren dan de postmoderne auteurs die deze technieken ontwikkelden. Zo levert de extradiëgetische  verteller van 10:04 commentaar op personages ín het verhaal, maar niet om daarmee het fictieve gehalte of kunstmatigheid van de roman te benadrukken: “The device is postmodern, recursively framing and foregrounding the story in a story, yet it serves not as a self-reflexive affectation; but rather as a way of showing the hermeneutic function of stories in our memories”.

Gibbons is het met Vermeulen en Van den Akker eens dat het metamodernisme niet als een radicale breuk met het postmodernisme moet worden opgevat. Vermeulen en Van den Akker spreken van postmoderne neigingen die een nieuwe betekenis en richting krijgen (“a new sense”), terwijl Gibbons concludeert dat postmoderne technieken mainstream zijn geworden en we een nieuwe, meer serieuze literatuur nodig hebben om de echte problemen in de wereld te kunnen onderzoeken.

Nederlandse millennials

Het woord “metamodernisme” wordt in Nederland weinig gebruikt, al weidde Vrij Nederland vijf jaar geleden een groot artikel aan de gevoelsstructuur waarvoor Vermeulen en Van den Akker, maar ook Niels van Poecke werden geïnterviewd.[4] Het niet aanslaan of het bewust vermijden van de term wil uiteraard niet zeggen dat de Nederlandstalige literatuur niet reageert op nieuwe gevoelsstructuren of vragen negeert over het doodlopen van het postmodernisme. Er wordt ook al uitgebreid onderzoek gedaan naar “post-postmoderne” Nederlandse literatuur, al dan niet in verband met het metamodernismedebat in de Angelsaksische wereld. Een belangwekkende publicatie is Affectieve crisis, literair herstel (2021)[5]van Hans Demeyer en Sven Vitse, een boek dat bouwt op eerder onderzoek naar “laatpostmoderne” Nederlandstalige literatuur die vooral een correctie lijkt op de excessen van postmoderne ironie. De Nijmeegse master Letterkundestudent Tom Verstappen bereidt daarnaast een podcastserie voor over het metamodernisme in de Nederlandse literatuur, met interviews met onder meer Max Hermens en Joost Oomen. Ook dat is er eentje om in de gaten te houden (de serie zowel als Tom)!

Demeyer en Vitse kiezen in Affectieve crisis, literair herstel voor auteurs die chronologisch gezien van na het postmodernisme zijn, dus geen Rob van Essens die in hun oeuvre mogelijk een “wende voorbij het postmodernisme [hebben] gemaakt” (22). Hun centrale stelling is dat millennialliteratuur een “affectieve focus” heeft, “met een grote nadruk op thema’s als hechting, verbinding, gemis en verlangen” (14). Ze schrijven dat de romans die zij bespreken vorm geven aan een nieuw soort engagement, in de wetenschap dat “politiek-kritische benaderingen van de maatschappelijke realiteit zodanig aan geloofwaardigheid (…) hebben ingeboet – na de deconstructie van de ‘grote verhalen’ – dat deze realiteit in eerste instantie slechts affectief beleefd kan worden” (14). Demeyer en Vitse gebruiken de term “metamodernisme” niet, maar verwijzen wel naar “gevoelsstructuren” die de “epistemologische focus van de (post)moderne literatuur van de twintigste eeuw” zouden hebben vervangen (14) – niet alleen in het Nederlandse taalgebied. Om die laatste reden vergelijken ze de Nederlandse millennials met buitenlandse auteurs als Éduard Louis, Lina Meruane en Sally Rooney.

Oscillerend zuidwaarts

Het postmodernisme komt in De goede zoon expliciet aan bod en wel in passages die lezers met een bijzondere belangstelling voor het metamodernisme zullen fascineren. De verteller, ooit een blauwe maandag kunstgeschiedenisstudent, denkt hardop na over wat er is geworden van het postmodernisme waarmee hij is opgegroeid. De hierboven geciteerde reflectie op de postmoderne monumentenlijst wordt later in de roman gevolgd door de opmerking dat begin jaren negentig het verschil tussen “ouderwets” en “postmodern” nog duidelijk was (188-189). Toen was “ironie [ook nog] van ons,” merkt de verteller op nadat hij een robot een binnenpretje heeft zien hebben.

Van Essens verteller verlangt terug naar een tijd waarin het postmoderne nog onderscheidend was, maar tegelijkertijd is hij kritisch op de uitwassen van datzelfde postmodernisme. Hij hekelt vooral de vercommercialisering van hedendaagse kunst, dat zich onder andere uit in het onschadelijk maken van de avant-garde en het reduceren van de kunstgeschiedenis tot “hoogtepunten”:

In de nieuwste kunst is niemand meer geïnteresseerd, ze willen zien wat vroeger gemaakt is, wat de handboeken heeft gehaald, waar ze ooit over gelezen hebben in de kranten die toen nog bestonden en die ze nu uit apparaten kunnen oproepen als ze ergens koffiedrinken. Ze willen zien wat ze eerder zagen, toen ze nog jong waren en er nog toe deden, net als die kunstwerken. Ze willen de schok van het nieuwe nog eens ondergaan, maar dan als echo. (68)

Voor de verteller was het gedaan met de kunst na Damien Hirsts For the Love of God (2008), een met diamanten bezette menselijke schedel die hij in het Rijksmuseum veelzeggend “op ooghoogte van een kind” tentoongesteld ziet (71). Wanneer hij met Lennox over dit soort kwesties praat, toont die zich begripvol voor tijdgenoten die kunst vooral consumeren. Maar volgens de verteller hebben zij een fundamenteel andere opvatting over wat “echt” is:

Ga jij nog naar musea dan, ik bedoel, naar een gebouw? Dat hoeft toch allang niet meer?

Mensen gaan anders nog steeds in drommen naar musea om de echte dingen te zien, zeg ik.

Maar je kan thuis alles vanuit alle hoeken zien, en in alle details. Echtheid is belangrijker dan die verhevigde ervaring?

Echtheid is de verhevigde ervaring, zeg ik. (162)

De roman neemt dus een ambivalente positie in ten opzichte van het postmodernisme. Maar hij is in meerdere opzichten twee schijnbaar tegengestelde dingen tegelijkertijd. Het boek bestaat uit satire en ironie, maar klaarblijkelijk júist om serieuze vragen over oprechtheid te stellen. Het heeft geen hechte, plotgedreven structuur, maar komt wel tot closure. De science fiction gedeeltes gaan bovendien verdacht vaak over het verleden, terwijl de hoofdstukken over de moeder van de verteller het midden houden tussen autobiografie en fictie. Zoals Van Essen in een gesprek met Lottes Lentes van de Nieuwe Oost/ Wintertuin aangeeft,[6] had hij de roman graag “autobiografische science fiction” genoemd, maar zijn uitgever stak daar een stokje voor. Jammer, want zo’n “eigenlijk onmogelijke” ondertitel had perfect gepast bij een roman die op zoveel verschillende vlakken “oscilleert”.

Er zijn legio romans aan te wijzen waarin op een vergelijkbare manier tussen tegenstellingen heen en weer wordt bewogen. Maar wat opvalt in De goede zoon is de voorname rol van verwijzingen naar het postmodernisme in dit proces. Die zijn er niet alleen in bovengenoemde passages, maar ook in de vorm van de roman. Bij Van Essen zijn een aantal “typisch” postmoderne technieken terug te vinden, maar deze worden niet gebruikt om te deconstrueren of ironiseren. Het vermengen van schrijfstijlen en literaire genres lijkt in De goede zoon bijvoorbeeld geen doel op zich. En dat geldt ook voor de manier waarop de roman naar zichzelf als een fictie verwijst. Want een schrijvende verteller, zelf de creatie van een auteur, die een nieuwe identiteit voor een ander personage bedenkt: dat riekt naar hardcore postmoderne metafictie. Toch wordt dat hier niet ingezet om het realisme van de roman te ondergraven.

Stilistische variatie zorgt er ook voor dat de delen over het (familie)verleden van de verteller minder gehaast aanvoelen dan de passages op de snelweg naar het zuiden. Het is alsof de roman wil zeggen dat de herinneringen die je maken wie je bent (of denkt te zijn) je overeind kunnen houden in een dolgedraaid heden. Als de tegenwoordige tijd in De goede zoon veel weg heeft van de “plotloze thrillers” die de verteller zelf schrijft, dan vormt zijn praten over zijn rol als zoon een baken van rust, ook voor de lezer misschien. Onderweg naar Bonzo is hij inderdaad vooral de speelbal van zijn criminele vrienden, semi-autonome technologie en een hem steeds vreemder voorkomende wereld: een schrijver gevangen in een voor hem geschreven script, zonder macht of verbinding met zijn omgeving.

Bestemming bereikt

“Echtheid”, affect, het verlangen naar wezenlijk contact in een maatschappij gedomineerd door planmatigheid en efficiëntie: het zijn blijkbaar ook belangrijke thema’s bij Van Essen, die even goed op een nieuwe, eenentwintigste “sensibiliteit” kan reageren als een millennialschrijver. Zijn roman toont veel gelijkenis met binnen- en buitenlandse fictie die zich van postmoderne technieken bedient om het leven na de vermeende dood van het postmodernisme te verkennen. Of we om die reden met “metamodern” het juiste woord voor De goede zoon te pakken hebben, is minder belangrijk dan de terechte constatering, zowel door Vermeulen en Van den Akker als Demeyer en Vitse, dat er meer aan de hand is in hedendaagse kunst dan slechts het bijsturen van doorgeschoten postmoderne ironie.

In zijn gesprek met Lotte Lentes zegt Rob van Essen dat hij door literatuur vooral vervoerd wil worden. In De goede zoon worden we dat letterlijk en figuurlijk. Maar wie zich liever niet inlaat met net iets te empatische zelfrijdende auto’s moet weten dat die roman zich ook prima in de trein laat lezen. Van Essen had in 2019 ook de NS Publieksprijs mogen winnen.

References


[1] Vermeulen, Timotheus en Robin van den Akker. “Notes on metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 2, 2010.

[2] Akker, Robin van den et al. (eds.) Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth After Postmodernism. Rowman & Littlefeld, 2017, p. 17.

[3] Gibbons, Alison. “Postmodernism is dead. What comes next?” Times Literary Supplement, 18 feb. 2019.

[4] Verschuer, Nynke. “Metamodernisme: tussen geestdrift en ironie.” Vrij Nederland, vol. 77, nr. 25, 25 juni 2016, pp. 68-73.

[5] Demeyer, Hans en Sven Vitse. Affectieve crisis, literair herstel: De romans van de millennialgeneratie. Amsterdam UP, 2021.

[6] Zie de opname van dit “Grote Gesprek” op de website van de “Notulen van het Onzichtbare”, gepubliceerd op 22 september 2020: https://www.notulenvanhetonzichtbare.nl/notulen/het-grote-gesprek-rob-van-essen/.

Review: Corina Koolen’s Dit is geen vrouwenboek: De waarheid achter man-vrouw-verschillen in de literatuur.

By Roel Smeets

Eerder verschenen in Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde.

‘Coowlen?’ Op het NovelTM Congres 2018 in Montreal hoor ik professor Ted Underwood – internationaal vermaard om zijn pionierswerk op het gebied van de computationele letterkunde – een poging doen de naam van Corina Koolen uit te spreken. In een discussie over literaire kwaliteit, gender en stereotypes, haalt hij haar met Andreas van Cranenburgh gepubliceerde artikel ‘These are not the Stereotypes You are Looking For: Bias and Fairness in Authorial Gender Attribution’ (2017) aan. Hij is lyrisch. Niet alleen over het artikel, maar ook over het bredere onderzoeksproject The Riddle of Literary Quality (2012-2019) waar het uit voortkomt. De combinatie van grootschalig lezersonderzoek (Nationale Lezersonderzoek 2013) en computationele tekstanalyse is inderdaad uniek: niet eerder is er zulk datagedreven onderzoek gedaan naar de relatie tussen lezersoordelen en tekstkenmerken. The Riddle of Literary Quality was een aanzet tot een computationele operationalisering van de grote vraag wat literaire kwaliteit is. In plaats van te verzanden in definities die literatuurwetenschappers sinds jaar en dag vanuit hun leunstoel hebben proberen te formuleren, vertrok dit project vanuit de simpele maar heldere hypothese dat teksten die meer of minder literair beoordeeld worden wel eens meetbare kenmerken gemeen zouden kunnen hebben. Grammaticale complexiteit, bijvoorbeeld, of het gebruik van bepaalde onderwerpen of thema’s.

Hoewel die benadering in de kringen van meer kwantitatief ingestelde letterkundigen doorgaans in goede aarde viel, is ze verre van oncontroversieel in andere regionen van de literatuurwetenschap. Literatuur door een computer halen? Literaire kwaliteit meten? Blasfemie! Die weerstand is onderdeel van een bredere discussie over de opbrengsten en gevaren van het schijnbaar oprukkende, maar nog steeds relatief marginale distant reading binnen de muren van letterenfaculteiten in binnen- en buitenland. Dat die discussie levendig is, blijkt uit het online platform dat wetenschappelijk tijdschrift Critical Inquiry oprichtte naar aanleiding van het artikel ‘The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies’ (2019) van Nan Z. Da, en waarin door de groten der letterkunde van gedachten werd gewisseld over de intrede van de computer, waarbij de gemoederen niet zelden hoog opliepen. Ik heb hier te weinig ruimte om de relatie van Koolens nieuwe boek tot die discussie in kaart te brengen, en zal moeten volstaan met de observatie dat haar innovatieve computationele benadering in de letterkundige gemeenschap niet alleen tot fascinatie (zoals van Ted Underwood en van ondergetekende) maar ongetwijfeld ook tot scepsis zal hebben begeleid. 

En dan hebben we het nog niet eens over gender gehad. Dit is geen vrouwenboek. De waarheid achter m/v-verschillen in de literatuur (2020) is een bewerking van het proefschrift Reading Beyond the Female. The Relationship Between Perception of Author Gender and Literary Quality (2018) waar Koolen op promoveerde. Dat leidde toen al tot een kleine controverse in het publieke debat, waarbij onder andere Elma Drayer en Jamal Ouariachi hun stem lieten horen. Hoewel Koolens observatie dat lezers in het Nationale Lezersonderzoek 2013 vrouwelijke schrijvers als minder literair beoordelen dan mannelijk schrijvers moeilijk aanvechtbaar is (de statistieken spreken in dit geval voor zich), bleken haar mogelijke verklaringen en interpretaties van dat patroon heel goed aanvechtbaar voor mensen die jeukerig worden van alles wat maar in de verte riekt naar identiteitspolitiek. Meestal ging de kritiek niet verder dan weinig gegronde beweringen als dat het toch wel meevalt met die biases rondom vrouwelijk auteurschap die Koolen op consciëntieuse en overtuigende wijze hard maakt in haar proefschrift.

Het publieksboek Dit is geen vrouwenboek is niet alleen een vertaling van haar onderzoeksresultaten in aangenamer proza, met minder jargon en een anekdotische, persoonlijke stijl (‘Herfst 2019. Joris grinnikt even als hij het koffietentje binnenkomt waar ik met hem heb afgesproken’ (p.11)), het bouwt ook duidelijk voort op de discussie rondom haar proefschrift in 2018. Al op de eerste bladzijden spreekt ze haar criticasters, en de mensen die ze onder de grotere noemer ‘Club Gendermoeheid’ schaart, expliciet toe (‘Sorry, Arnon. Ik stel voor: lees als allerlaatste actie dit boek, dan lossen we alles op en dan praten we er nooit meer over’ (p.13)). Het voordeel daarvan is dat haar kaarten meteen op tafel liggen, het nadeel is dat het een wij-zij-gevoel oproept. Op zich is het natuurlijk helemaal geen slecht idee om je te verhouden tot je (potentiële) critici, en Koolen doet dat op zeer genuanceerde wijze, waarbij ze de lezer stap voor stap door haar onderzoeksproces heen loodst. Mijn enige, bescheiden bezwaar is de soms positivistische toon die Koolen daarbij hanteert. Dat zit bijvoorbeeld in de ondertitel van het boek De waarheid achter man-vrouw-verschillen in de literatuur en in het ‘QED’ (Quod Erat Demonstrandum) waarmee ze haar conclusie afsluit. Het gaat hier niet zozeer om inhoudelijke, maar eerder om stilistische keuzes die mijns inziens onnodig suggereren dat de waarheid over gender en literaire kwaliteit nu voor eens en voor altijd boven tafel is. Het strookt ook niet met Koolens weloverwogen reflecties op het gebruik van datagedreven computeranalyse, waarbij ze eigenlijk eerder een anti-positivistische houding inneemt, zoals wanneer ze in de bijlage ‘Verklarende lijst computerprogramma’s’ nuanceert dat die computerprogramma’s ‘niet De Waarheid [opleveren], maar […] vooral nuttig [zijn] om inzicht te geven in patronen, die anders wellicht niet op zouden vallen’ (p. 211). Als er al een waarheid is over man-vrouw-verschillen in de literatuur, dan komen weinig boeken daar dichter bij in de buurt dan dat van Koolen. Maar De Waarheid bestaat natuurlijk niet, zoals Koolen zelf heel goed weet, dus waarom die suggestie wekken?

Los daarvan weet Koolens boek me veelvuldig te inspireren. Ter illustratie licht ik één aspect uit dat wat mij betreft navolging mag krijgen: haar gebruik van institutionele analyse ter aanvulling op en soms verklaring van haar computationele tekstanalyses. Het meest in het oog springend is haar concept ‘de literaire ladder’, waarmee ze onderscheid maakt tussen de mate waarin mannen en vrouwen scoren op oplopende niveaus van literair prestige, van professioneel auteur naar literair auteur naar gerecenseerd worden naar genomineerd worden voor een literaire prijs naar een prijs winnen. Hoe hoger we op de literaire ladder komen, hoe minder aanwezig vrouwelijke auteur zijn. Als slechts 21 tot 25% van de literaire prijzen door vrouwen worden gewonnen, dan is het niet vreemd dat men literaire kwaliteit met mannelijk auteurschap blijft associëren. En dit is slechts één van de vele (institutionele en tekstuele) patronen die Koolen aanhaalt als mogelijke verklaringen van die gender bias onder lezers. 

In meer algemene zin is haar drieledige methodologische raamwerk de belangrijkste bijdrage van Dit is geen vrouwenboek aan de studie van gender bias in literatuur. Op overtuigende wijze brengt ze drie dimensies samen: 1. de lezer (hoe oordelen lezers over literaire kwaliteit van vrouwelijke ten opzichte van mannelijke auteurs?), 2. de tekst (zijn er typisch mannelijke of vrouwelijke tekstkenmerken?), en 3. de institutionele context (welke posite hebben vrouwelijke auteurs in het literaire veld en welke infrastructurele factoren spelen daar een rol in?). Haar bevinding dat er andere normen gelden voor vrouwelijke dan voor mannelijke schrijvers komt waarschijnlijk  niet als een verrassing; het is vooral de rijkheid van perspectieven op en mogelijke verklaringen van die normen die dit boek zo lezenswaardig maakt. Vrouwelijke schrijvers worden significant lager beoordeeld door lezers dan mannelijke schrijvers. Genre speelt daar een rol in: het romantische genre kent vooral vrouwelijke auteurs en scoort het laagst, maar ook literaire romans geschreven door een vrouwen scoren lager. Niet digitale tekstanalyse maar institutionele analyse lijkt uiteindelijk tot de meest bevredigende verklaring te leiden: hoewel vrouwen een andere grammaticale stijl en onderwerpkeuze hanteren dan mannen (al is dit niet nogal een complexe kwestie met ruimte voor interpretatie), wijdt Koolen dat verschil in beoordeling vooral aan institutionele factoren zoals de bovengenoemde ‘literaire ladder’ (vrouwen zijn minder zichtbaar aan de ‘top’ van het literaire veld, wat bijdraagt aan de beeldvorming). Intuïtief lijkt dat misschien logisch (want we zien, bijvoorbeeld, dat vrouwen minder prijzen winnen), maar Koolens boek laat ook zien hoe complex die intuïtie is. We vinden van alles, ook over gender en literatuur, maar waarom we dat vinden heeft vaak te maken met onbewuste en niet-objectieve opvattingen die gevormd worden door vage associaties, ingesleten stereotypen, eeuwenoude culturele patronen. Kristalhelder zal het wel nooit worden, maar na lezing van Dit is geen vrouwenboek zijn die vage associaties in ieder geval een heel stuk minder vaag. 

‘Her name is Corina Koolen’, antwoordde ik op de vraag van Ted Underwood, ‘her work is awesome’. 

Zoom Fashion

By Anneke Smelik

The cover of The New Yorker of 7 Dec. 2020 features a telling cartoon of our daily life during the lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic: a woman sits in front of her laptop wearing a smart top, her hair in a nice bun, with lipstick and earrings, but underneath she wears sportive shorts showing hairy legs in fluffy slippers. This strange separation between our well-dressed upper parts of our body and relaxed if not partly undressed lower bodies, is so typical of our online lives in front of the camera. Smart from the waist up; relaxed from the waist down. It brings into sharp relief the performative aspect of the way we dress. 

In the beginning of the pandemic, during the first lockdown, as teachers we shared slightly embarrassed exchanges about wearing sweatpants or pyjama bottoms that no one could see. Soon enough the internet was abounding with faux pas of people online wearing a suit, shirt and tie, but with their underpants showing when they got up. Teachers and students alike are quite conscious of their screen presence, which reveals only the top part of the body. Makeup and hair matter more, as do tops, while bottoms and shoes matter less and probably stay locked away in the cupboard. Staring at one’s own face among many others during the online meetings and classes requires new make-up and dressing routines. Combining nice tops that are in view with sweatpants for the part of the body that (hopefully) no one can see, reveals that dress is, after all, performative: we dress not only for ourselves but also for others (Smelik & Kaiser, 2020). We dress for the public gaze. 

This performative aspect of fashion reminds me of the metaphor of the stage that sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) used to characterize presentations of self as performances in everyday life.  As Efrat Tseëlon (2016) has shown, the theatrical metaphor of performance is particularly apt for the study of clothing and appearance. Goffman’s notion of a ‘front region’, the social role that people adopt in society, versus the ‘back region’, where people relax their looks and behaviour, is intimately connected with the ways we dress. The staged, edited and filtered selfies that we put on Instagram or Facebook are clearly intended for the ‘front region’, whereas we are usually reluctant to upload snapshots from the ‘back region’ when we lounge on our couch in a track suit without any make up on. Translating Goffman’s terms to the digital age of Zoom, Teams, virtual classrooms, and other digital meetings, perhaps we can better talk of an ‘upper region’ and a ‘lower region’! Now, the upper region of our body remains out there up front, while the lower part of the body can relax into the invisible back region. 

Clothes are an important part of ‘impression management’, as it has come to be known. In the presence of others, Goffman argues, individuals will try to influence the situation by presenting themselves in a favourable light. In this respect, Goffman makes a difference between the impression that people give intentionally and the impression that they give off unintentionally. We may dress very carefully to make an impression for a Zoom meeting by doing our hair and applying makeup, putting on a nice top and jewellery, but may give off quite a different impression by getting up in haste showing a pyjama bottom, or worse, underwear. Our online lives are still sustained by normative expectations and tacit rules of embodied presentation: the performance goes on, even if the camera reduces us to ‘talking heads’. 

I am probably not the only one who misses wearing (and showing off) beautiful shoes, and who is slightly fed up with wearing Uggs, however comfortable at home. It cannot be any coincidence that fashion designers have come up with ‘Zoom fashion’, focusing on the ‘waist-up’, with detailed necklines and relaxed trousers (Criddle, 2020). We may not be able to afford such expensive brands, but I have come across a fun solution for Zoom fashion: the work-at-home sweater that looks like a business suit. This certainly helps to create the right impression management. So, while the lockdown lasts, I will try to keep my desire for swirling skirts and smart trousers on hold, and have fun with Zoom fashion by mismatching business-like tops with totally relaxed bottoms. 

References

Criddle, Cristina, ‘Fashion brands design ‘waist-up’ clothing for video calls’. BBC News, 20 september 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-54327987

Goffman, Erving (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.

Anneke Smelik and Susan Kaiser, ‘Performing fashion’. Editorial introduction to Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, vol 11 nr 2, 2020: 117-128. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/csfb_00012_2

Tseëlon, Efrat (2016),  ‘Erving Goffman: Social science as an art of cultural observation’. In Agnès Rocamora & Anneke Smelik (eds.) Thinking Through Fashion. A Guide to Key Theorists. London: Bloomsbury, 149-164.

Sabaton: The Battle of Identity

By Ruben Broers, Guus Timmermans and Floor Veldmeijer

Music has always been subject to technological change. When around 1860 the first recording of a music piece was made, it forced music to become a dual-efficient commodity: now both live and recorded music could be lucrative. With the invention of respectively the vinyl, the cassette and the CD, recorded music became a mass product. These two faces of music, live and recorded, were the two most defining and the most accessible ways of getting to know the musician that you love. Identification with the musician was done via the music itself and the relation was otherwise formed by interviews done by the mass media. The musician could still sustain their artistic lives with this double income.

However, the rising popularity of the internet in the last decade changed everything. The possibility of endlessly digitally copying music pushed the musical container into an artificial state and became superfluous. This change introduced the decline of the recording as a source of income. The illegal pirating of music killed one of the two revenue streams. The rise of streaming services thereafter compensated this fall-back but did that too little. Nowadays, recorded music isn’t a huge source of income anymore and musicians are predominantly relying on the commission earned by performing. This last development forced the musician to expand their horizons beyond music. Recorded music is nothing more than a sales pitch for the musician’s live shows nowadays. This is where they get their true revenue. To quote musicologist Keith Negus on this matter: Music is a means to another end rather than an end in itself.

In the modern digital age, the musician is relying more and more upon forming a (group)identity. The record companies are now commoditizing an identity via music. Nevertheless, this evolution isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the industry. With the help of the internet, getting close to an artist has never been so effortless. The proliferating use of social media actualizes a closer bond between the musician and their audience. This blog post will focus on a sense of identity contrived by working with YouTube as a storyboard, explaining notes the band made on their songs and other works, obtaining both a better connection with existing fans and building bridges to a broader audience with the help of the algorithms of the video service. The case study in this blogpost is built around Swedish metal band Sabaton, highly successful on musical platforms like Spotify, as well as on Youtube as historical storytellers. With this transcendence of the traditional borders of the media, they could be a blueprint for the future of interaction between musician and audience.

Through their music, Sabaton aims to tell the stories of historic battles, events, wars and soldiers. Because they do this through the perspective of the people, soldiers during WW1 for example, there is very little historical reflection on the subject matter. Because of this, and the subject matter itself, they had to defend themselves from accusations of nazism and rightwing sympathies. Although we will not focus on that, we wanted to mention it, because Sabaton does deal with very sensitive subjects in a way that does not appeal to everyone. For this blog post, however, let us move past this controversy and look at their content and music without moral or ethical judgement, but purely as a case study for the use of YouTube; because Sabaton uses YouTube in a very interesting way.

Sabaton has two channels: one is its regular music channel, the other is The Sabaton History Channel. On that channel they dive deeper into the subject matter of their music, explaining the history behind it, as well as some anecdotes about the creation of the song. This ‘show’ is hosted by Indy Neidell, a veteran of historical YouTube channels. The entire channel is a collaboration between TimeGhost, Neidell’s main channel, and Sabaton.

Through this collaboration, the music of Sabaton gets introduced to a whole new audience. An audience that might not be familiar with metal music, but who are interested enough in history to watch Neidell’s other channels, mainly the TimeGhost and World War Two channels. I say that because of how YouTube’s algorithm works: these channels are all linked as ‘Featured Channels’, a list of channels that the original channel wants to highlight. In a few videos of the World War Two channel, Neidell mentions his work for Sabaton History and implores viewers to go and watch that too. For these new viewers the band Sabaton is rooted in historical content, perhaps more than metal music. 

Broadening the audience is not the only thing that the band gets out of their interaction with Youtube, although it is the most interesting. They also have another way to connect to their existing fans, to earn more money through YouTube and Patreon, a crowdfunding platform built to provide artists with a stable income. This comes back to something that Negus wrote: “Yet, as the few, ever more oligopolistic, major corporations began to reposition themselves as music companies (seeking profits from multiple rights rather than dwindling income from record sales)”. The use of YouTube can be viewed as one way to supplement the dwindling income from record sales. 

Through the multiple YouTube channels Sabaton has, they have a global reach, in theory. This is hard to investigate since public statistics do not show the background of the viewers, but the comments on the videos can say a lot. One example, the official video for Bismarck, mostly has comments in English, but there are quite some comments using the Cyrillic alphabet. Even though the song is named after a German World War II battleship, it is not weird that most comments are in English, as that is the lingua franca on YouTube. But all of these Cyrillic comments date from two weeks ago or even later, while the video was posted in April 2019, and most of the comments seem to date from then. This could be because a year the Russian band Radio Tapok covered the Sabaton song Attack of the Dead Men, a song about a battle between Russian and German soldiers in Poland, and they also performed it together in May. Apparently, this attracted Russian-speaking fans to the Swedish band, fans they would not otherwise have attracted. The Russian video for this song has next to no English comments, and the English version has a relatively small amount of Russian comments, showing that the glocalised music might be spreading globally, but the audiences have not fully merged yet.

It seems that songs about battles or people from a certain country attract viewers from that same country. In the comments for many of these videos, you can find people praising their national heroes or lamenting that they do not receive enough attention worldwide or even in their home countries. This is visible in the Sabaton History video on war hero Leslie “Bull” Allen. I did not have to watch the video to find out Bull Allen’s nationality, as I could figure it out from the many comments starting with “As an Australian”. Looking at their tour dates, you can also see that they mainly tour the US and Europe, especially western and northern Europe, and these venues are rather large. Recently, Russia and other countries where Russian is also spoken have also been included in the tour locations. As their last album is solely about the First World War, it is unsurprising that countries that the Great War was fought in and remember it every year are also the countries that the tour was planned in. The only real outlier is the US since they did not include other nations that sent soldiers to die on the fronts of the First World War.  

Sabaton has worked very hard to become known for its niche of historical metal music. This identity resonates with a large audience, and their online presence and the topics they discuss seem to be attracting new audiences with every new location they sing about in their songs, and especially when they talk about in their history videos. It is noteworthy that many of the commenters on their YouTube videos seem to be from the country they are discussing in the video, suggesting that their audience is not as global as they might have hoped. This online audience does seem to translate into real-life concert attendees, as they are currently focussing on the areas which are featured on their albums. This can be seen as a smart marketing strategy and an easy way to find a niche in a large genre, or as underutilisation of metal music’s demographic. Though Sabaton might not be the only one to blame, as algorithms on platforms such as YouTube try to only suggest videos that they think the user will surely love, so it is not too remarkable that their videos seem to garner most fans in areas that they directly reference in their music. So if they wish to expand their audience, they will have to expand their song topics. With this, they could be a prime example of how musicians should interact with their audience in the digital era.

Sources

Cayari, Christopher, ‘’Connecting music education and virtual performance practices from YouTube’’, Music Education Research (2017) 1-17.

Gronow, Pekka, “The Record Industry: The Growth of a Mass Medium”, Popular Music, Vol. 3 (Cambridge 1983) 53–75.

Hargreaves. Miell & Macdonald, ‘’What are musical identities, and why are they important.’’, in: Macdonald, Musical Identities (Oxford 2002) 1-18.

Negus, Keith, ‘’From creator to data: the post-record music industry and the digital conglomerates Media’’, Culture & Society 2019, Vol. 41(3) (London 2019) 367– 384.

Rogers, Jim, The death & life of the music industry in the digital age (New York 2013).

Sabaton, https://www.sabaton.net/news/tour-shows/the-great-tour-is-coming-to-europe-early-2020/

Sabaton looks back on Nazi Controversy: Sabaton News. Anti-Music https://www.antimusic.com/news/16/August/ts18Sabaton_Look_Back_On_Nazi_Controversy.shtml

Destroy My Art – Cancel culture or paradigm shift?

By Marcel van den Haak

Beloved author J.K. Rowling, ‘cancelled’ because of her allegedly transphobic opinions. Classic Hollywood films, from Disney’s Dumbo to the epic Gone with the wind, ‘cancelled’ due to outdated racist stereotypes (on the latter: see our research project, in which you can participate). An increasing number of artists from whichever field, ‘cancelled’ after #MeToo. In the last five to ten years, a large number of artists have been criticised heavily for ethical rather than aesthetic reasons, be it about the artwork itself or about the behaviour or opinions of the artist; about the past (seen in a new light) or the present. 

Strong ethical protest against art from a more conservative side – sacrilegious!, moral degradation! – has been widespread since decades if not centuries. But since recently the art world must deal with ever more critique from progressive circles, often from within the art world itself. This type of critique is by no means new [1], but its impact has grown to an immense scale thanks to social media, which can give space to worldwide calls for boycotts in only a few hours’ time. Besides, for artists who call themselves progressive, it was much easier to ignore conservative critics than it is to dismiss allegations of racism or sexism.

Let’s look at a recent example of ‘cancel culture’ in the Netherlands that has been heavily debated. In September 2020, photography biennial BredaPhoto opened an artwork by Erik Kessels in a local skate park, called ‘Destroy My Face’, consisting of dozens of computer generated pictures of women’s faces that were ‘deformed’ by an overdose of plastic surgery. Skaters were invited to ride over these pictures, in order to gradually erase them, and hence, destroy the destruction. The day after the opening, an initially anonymous collective of art and design students in the Netherlands, @WeAreNotAPlayground, started a petition against this ‘misogynist’ artwork, that invites violence against women. This petition gained a global following, not only in the art world, but also in girls’ skating communities. Within a week, the artwork was removed (by the skate park, not by BredaPhoto). 

image

Instagram post by @WeAreNotAPlayground

Debates erupted about the freedom of art under threat by ‘cancel culture’ gone too far. But did it? In this essay I will weigh the arguments pro and contra removal.

Let us first look at the artwork itself. One cannot ‘objectively’ judge it on aesthetic grounds, but I can imagine it is an interesting endeavour to create an installation that is supposed to be destroyed by its spectators – or perhaps: that is partially created by the spectators. One might call it an interactive piece of performance art of which only images and videos were supposed to remain. It reminds me of ‘Hungry Artist’ (David Datuna eating Cattelan’s taped banana as an artwork in itself), or Rauschenberg erasing a De Kooning drawing, but this time it’s the audience doing the deleting (although there are undoubtedly more examples). What makes it even more worthwhile from this perspective is its placement outside museum walls: BredaPhoto makes art accessible to a young audience that usually would not be highly interested in art. They can even participate in its creation (or destruction), by doing what they like most: skating! Finally, this case is not a simple clash between aesthetic and ethical judgements (original and interactive versus sexist and violent), as Kessels has a moral message himself. He wants to attack excesses in plastic surgery and Instagram fakeness and to propagate a more authentic vision of beauty instead, which is in line with recent counter narratives on body positivity, widespread on social media.

image

Of course, one can debate whether the destruction of destruction leads to restoration and beauty (what Kessels apparently intended) or to the deletion of faces whatsoever (which would have factually been the result – but maybe this is the “irony” that I’m missing). But one way or the other, that women can feel ‘objectified and targeted’, as the petition goes,  when people are skating over women’s (albeit fictitious) faces, makes sense. That this artwork does not fit ‘within today’s climate of sexist behaviour and violence against women’ is therefore a logical deduction. Moreover, it is not far-fetched to point at the potential ‘very real and harmful effects’, when one considers the placement in a skate park, with its predominantly masculine culture. When the skating boys are supposed to be co-creators of the artwork, the flipside is that they are also made accomplices in the symbolic violence against women. It is no wonder that the petition was also signed by many members of the underrepresented female skating community. What might be considered a very inclusive step from the point of view of age (getting young people acquainted with art), turns out to be highly exclusive in terms of gender. 

These arguments are in line with other moral debates on art: the artwork is derogatory to members of a certain group in society, who therefore do not feel included, and it can have actual effects in real life because a dominant discourse is reaffirmed. Furthermore, inclusion on an institutional level is discussed, as the writers of the petition blame ‘the rampant sexism, racism and other biases that are still so ingrained within our cultural institutions’. 

image

Strikingly, the defence mechanism by the artist, the festival and others follows a familiar discourse as well. It is rooted in the modernist ethos that emerged in the nineteenth century and reached its height in the early twentieth century, when moral art critique predominantly came from conservative actors. The only common theme in this discourse that I did not encounter in this specific case, is the aesthetic prevalence over ethical issues, perhaps except for Volkskrant columnist Mark Moorman’s vague nod to the ‘quality’ of the work being made irrelevant.

The first argument in this modernist discourse is that the autonomy of art is sacred. This is closely related to the idea of the freedom of speech, but art has gained an even more special position in society (or even apart from society) as a sanctuary where you can do whatever you wish, no matter what. ‘Once, the art world was a free place where artists could do their divine thing. And that’s how it’s supposed to be’, argues columnist Elma Drayer. Artist Tinkebell adds that ‘art is not a democratic process: an artist should occupy a free position in society.’

Second, art is supposed to provoke, to shake up society and to entice a debate. Art history knows a multitude of morally ambiguous works that have enraged certain social groups, like the bourgeoisie or the clergy, or that confronted the audience with social problems. This is the main line of defence by Fleur van Muiswinkel, the director of BredaPhoto: ‘We precisely want the images to induce reflection. (…) The resulting discussioncontributes to solving social wrongs.’

Third, art knows no fixed or intended interpretation, to which the artist can be held accountable. Everyone can decide for themselves what to make of it; the author is dead, as Barthes claimed. Erik Kessels himself says that his work is supposed to raise questions: ‘Which ones? That’s up to anyone. I don’t judge, I only bring a certain issue under attention.’ This implies that the critics’ interpretation is not the only possible one, as Tinkebell stresses: ‘They think they own the truth, it’s really shocking!’ Funnily enough, at other instances, Kessels seems to imply that there isone true interpretation, but that his critics just didn’t get it. He refers several times to ‘irony’, and he wonderswhether the critics really ‘dived into the background of the piece’ or whether they ‘kept a critical distance’ before signing the petition.

Besides these three well-known arguments, ridicule is an often applied defence strategy as well. Situations like these are said to ultimately lead to ‘self-censorship’ in advance, out of fear for anger by one group or the other. Critics are often mocked as ‘Generation Snowflake’, who act ‘like victims’ or push a radical left agenda (the latter encountered by female skater Nanja van Rijsse). 

Indeed, followers of such movements often take extreme positions in social media storms, particularly when they actually ‘cancel’ the artist in question. Erik Kessels was spit out like a wicked human being, and he was asked to resign from an international photography jury. But can this be said of the initiators of the protest? Their petition is not a quick statement full of unsubstantiated allegations, personal attacks and unreasonable demands by philistines who know nothing about art, but rather an eloquent pamphlet by young upcoming artists, who give a substantial institutional critique and who propose three ‘suggestions’, including – indeed – removing the artwork. Admittedly, the word ‘suggestions’ is probably a typically Anglo-Saxon euphemism for ‘demands’, and their refusal to participate (‘unpaid’) in debates before their suggestions have been followed is not common practice in consensus-based Netherlands. But their Instagram account has since been filled with creatively designed statements and with video interviews on the need for inclusiveness in the art world.

Moreover, they use a serious counter-narrative to the Modernist paradigm on which Kessels and his defenders build their argumentation. On the autonomy of art, they argue that artists and art institutions should take their social responsibility ‘rather than see yourselves as something that is “outside of society”’, as the petition goes. Indeed, one can wonder why there is one domain in society where social sensitivities have no value – it was nice that artists could protect themselves from religious dogma and commercial goals, but it is hard to hold ground in debates on sexism and racism. Second, the petitioners counter the argument that art should entice a debate, by stating that ‘there are more than enough ways to create meaningful and empathic discourse around controversial topics’ than by means of discrimination. Skater Van Rijssel adds that inviting skaters to ride over the faces is not exactly enticing a dialogue. Let’s face it, many contemporary young artists are highly socially engaged in their work themselves. Finally, they give the responsibility for diverging interpretations back to the artist who wanted to get rid of it: ‘Your work has an impact, which can be reviewed separate from your intentions’, one of their later Instagram posts declares.

Yes, the artwork Destroy My Face was ‘cancelled’, more or less comparable to overreactions that sometimes take place when the hordes on Twitter smell blood on some or other scandal. Part of the global Internet community also unjustly demands the head of Kessels himself, as if he is a born and incurable misogynist with nothing but bad intentions. But this is not the initial activists’ aim at all. Their arguments and fundamental critique on the art world are not simply to be overlooked. They ask for serious change, they deserve to be heard. The future will tell whether actions and arguments like theirs will lead to a paradigm shift, ending the era when art was seen as fully autonomous from the rest of society and when ethical judgements were discharged as invalid art critique.

Pictures are from Erik Kessel’s Instagram

P.S. BredaPhoto organised a debate on the issue, that took place 20 November and which I watched after having written this piece. It features, among others, the artist himself, the festival director and the female skater who are featured in this piece.

[1] See for instance the 1960’s critique on the racist tendencies in Mark Twain’s literary classic Huckleberry Finn, as Wayne C. Booth recalled in his 1988 book The company we keep. An ethics of fiction.

Resonance

By Vincent Meelberg

It does not happen very often that you read a newspaper article that makes so much sense that it has a profound impact on your academic research. It has happened to me, though, after reading the interview with Hartmut Rosa in the Dutch newspaper NRC. Even though the interview does not discuss sound or music explicitly, which are the areas of my research, the main concept that Rosa introduces – resonance – does.

Rosa argues that modern society is one that operates in what he calls a mode of dynamic stabilization, i.e. a society that systematically requires growth, innovation and acceleration. Such a society can thus only be stable by being in constant motion and acceleration. This kind of dynamics also influences the arts, as contemporary literature, poetry, painting, dancing, theatre and music also seems to primarily value innovation and originality, and in so doing puts the emphasis on constant change. And academia, too, suffers from this. Academic research has to innovate, to produce something new. This is one of the reasons why replication studies, which are crucial to the integrity of academic research, are so unpopular. These studies do not really bring anything new to the table and at most confirm or refute past results.

According to Rosa, these developments have led to a conception of “the good life” as one that is geared towards availability, accessibility, and attainability. At first sight, this may not seem like a bad thing. Take music, for instance. Streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify has made music increasingly attainable and affordable. Virtually every song that was ever recorded is readily available to us listeners. But do we still actually listen? Do we still have the patience to sit down and listen to an entire song, let alone to a complete album, knowing that the next tune is just one click away? 

We simply do not have the time to listen or read anymore, Rosa points out:

As time has become an increasingly scarce commodity, while music and books have become more and more easily attainable and affordable, very often the books and cds or records thus collected are never really or fully read or heard. They are stored away in shelves and cases for possible future use. They are acquired as mere potential, but they are not, or not fully, appropriated in the true sense of “consumption.” (Rosa 2017: 447)

This paradoxical state in which everything is available, but at the same time not fully appropriated, Rosa calls alienation. Alienations is “[…] a particular mode of relating to the world of things, of people and of one’s self in which there is no responsivity, i.e. no meaningful inner connection” (Rosa 2017: 449). Alienation is a state in which it is impossible to make meaningful relations. It diminishes the capacity to feel affected by something, and in turn to develop intrinsic interest in the part of the world that affects us.

The solution to alienation, Rosa suggests, is resonance. Resonance is a dual movement of being touched or affected and responding to this affection in a way that acknowledges the affection. It thus requires an openness and a willingness to affect and be affected. We need to let ourselves be touched, and even transformed, in a non-predictable and non-controllable way. Indeed, this is similar to the manner in which Baruch de Spinoza and Gilles Deleuze conceptualise affect. What Rosa adds to their conception, however, is both a critique of contemporary society and a possible solution to alienation.

The reason why I believe the notion of resonance is so promising for my field of research – sound studies – is first and foremost because sound is resonance. Sounds are a form of resonance and can therefore be understood as a kind of vibrational affect, as Walter Gershon (2013) puts it. Sound literally touches and affects listeners through resonance. So, perhaps sound can teach us how to enter into a state of resonance. After all, as Gershon points out, “[t]he sonic is resonance and knowledge, vibrational affects that effect how individuals and groups are and know” (2013: 258). Sound perhaps is the most explicit manifestation of resonance, and therefore has the potential to incite us to think about what resonance is, or can be.

Yet, sound not only has the potentiality to inform us about resonance, but can also be used in order to stimulate resonance. A good example of this is sound in public spaces. In each and every space that we enter, sounds can be heard. In such spaces we are surrounded by sounds that propagate all around and come from everywhere at once. Sound thus literally places us in the midst of a world and have a huge influence in the manner in which we experience and interpret this space. We interpret this environment and add specific meaning to it, turning the “space” into a “place.” At the same time, we become part of the environment and in doing so contribute to defining its identity. We, as inhabitants of an environment, influence what Jean-Paul Thibaud (2011) calls the ambiance, which is the atmosphere of an environment as experienced by a person. 

Sounds influence the ways in which we get in sync with this environment. Certain sounds may affect us in such a way that we are motivated to open ourselves up to the environment, to let ourselves be touched and affected, and to respond to this affection in a way that acknowledges the affection. In short, to enter into a state of resonance.

Music in public spaces is an example of using specific sounds to influence the ambiance. Music may stimulate certain people to open themselves up to an environment and stay in this environment for a prolonged period of time. But non-musical sounds can have a similar effect, too. Even sounds that we are not consciously aware of may influence our experience of an environment and the manner in which we attune to its ambiance. 

The same holds for the absence of sounds. The recent lockdown, for instance, has resulted in a radical change in urban auditory environments. The city suddenly became quiet and sounds could be heard that previously were inaudible. This has led to a different relationship with urban sounds. People actually missed the sounds that they, in normal times, would label as “noise.” The relationship between these sounds and urban inhabitants changed, and as a result, their relationship with the city as a space changed as well. Sound, and in this case the absence of sound, motivated city inhabitants to enter into a new, meaningful relation with the urban environment. It stimulated resonance. And all they had to do is let themselves be touched and affected by sound, and open their ears.

References

Gershon, Walter (2013). “Vibrational Affect: Sound Theory and Practice in Qualitative Research.” Cultural Studies – Critical Methodologies 13(4): 257–262.

Rosa, Hartmut (2017). “Dynamic Stabilization, the Triple A. Approach to the Good Life, and the Resonance Conception.” Questions de communication 31: 437–456.

Thibaud, Jean-Paul (2011). “A Sonic Paradigm of Urban Ambiances.” Journal of Sonic Studies 1(1). https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/220589/220590