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

To Nazareth and back: an uncomfortable/hopeful journey through time

Written by Anna Geurts

More of Anna Geurts’ articles on historianatlarge.wordpress.com

I – living in western Europe, 2020 AD – have just returned from a visit to Mary and Joseph’s home: their cottage and carpentry workshop in Nazareth. How is that possible, you may wonder, in times of coronavirus? I’ll tell you.

The Dutch woods between Nijmegen and Cleves house a remarkable museum. The museum, called Orientalis, is dedicated to educating visitors about three large monotheistic religions from south-western Asia: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is situated in a beautiful park landscape in which dispersed groups of buildings tell a story of shared roots and cultures, aimed at enhancing mutual understanding and (re)conciliation between these faiths.

Museum village Beth Juda/Nazareth, photo by C.S. Booms (2009) (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Yet things are not so simple, even within a relatively small museum such as this, and even (or especially?) in a land far away from the pain of Palestine-Israel.

This is not in the first place a critique, but an account of the fascination which this museum holds.

While walking through the museum park, I feel myself move through many layers of history, and many layers of meaning. For the greater part, this is a very exciting experience. But it is also unnerving. Those layers across which I walk can be distinguished quite precisely:

It all started in the 1900s when three Dutch Catholics – until about that period a heavily marginalised cultural minority in the Netherlands – met on a pilgrimage to the Biblical lands. On their return to Europe, priest Arnold Suys, artist Piet Gerrits and architect Jan Stuyt decided to offer their less fortunate Dutch brothers and sisters the opportunity of seeing the holy places for themselves, right there, virtually in their own back yards.

They bought a piece of land east of Nijmegen, and from 1911 started building what was to form a halfway stage between a Catholic church – with its Biblical pictures and stories – and a theme park. They called it ‘foundation Holy Land’.

Imagine a super-elaborate open-air nativity scene. A place of devotion, of education, but also a place of enjoyment and even entertainment, with its forest, hills and meadows, its cottages, its recreated scenes from well-known stories, its group visits, monks acting as tour guides, and the refreshments that must undoubtedly have formed part of the day out. And, let’s be honest, most real pilgrimage journeys also have something both of the austere and of the frivolous.

So, there we have the museum’s first layer, created in 1911 and the decades that followed.

But of course, what the creators of the museum really wanted to show was the holy land as it existed in the days of Jesus. And so, visitors are led on a tour past Nazareth, past the cave where Jesus was born, and past the house near Nazareth where he grew up. (On the matter of that nativity cave, by the way: while we see Mary admiring the new-born baby Jesus in her lap, husband Joseph is taking a well-deserved nap. Poor guy, the twenty-first-century visitor thinks: modern expectations of fatherhood must have been taking their toll.)

Joseph resting after the birth of Jesus.

Especially the Jewish village (aka Nazareth, pictured above) makes for a real voyage of discovery, with its Mediterranean vegetation, its contrasts between hot outdoor and cool indoor spaces, and its mountainous winding paths that makes wheeled traffic nigh impossible – a boon for clamber-happy children, while probably a nightmare for wheelchair users who might therefore have to miss out on what is one of the best, most immersive parts of the museum.

But what’s that? That modern-looking plaque on one of the Jewish cottages? Isn’t that the emblem of the twentieth-century bureau for national built heritage, the kind of emblem usually found on medieval castles and around the grand canals of Amsterdam?

Carpenter’s workplace and home, design Piet Gerrits (1924).

It turns out that, in a highly ironic gesture, the national heritage service in 2003 (now no longer anti-Catholic, nor anti-Jewish, one imagines, and with a refreshingly broad-minded view on what counts as ‘national’) officially declared these faux Palestinian buildings to be part of Dutch national heritage.

Interior of the same.

There is more. The buildings, designed to exemplify the architecture of Biblical times (an idea which in itself forms a mixture of history and narrative, mind) – these buildings were modelled on nineteenth-century Palestinian buildings.* The assumption of the Dutch creators of the park, in line with a view on world history dominant in Europe at the time, was that life outside Europe, especially outside the city, had remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. Therefore, when we visit Joseph’s carpenter shop, a site where we may imagine the infant Jesus playing with bits of left-over wood, we are at the same time visiting a rather pretty nineteenth-century house – or at least one as remembered by a Dutch traveller who spent quite some time studying western-Asian design. And so, we may imagine an entirely different set of children running around the place – or not so different after all?

So far, we have been criss-crossing between historical antiquity, Biblical narrative, nineteenth-century Asian architecture, twenty-century Dutch monuments and Catholic devotional tourism.

But we are not done yet. From the 1960s onwards, the museum changed tack as it moved in the direction of interreligious education, dedicating more space to Jewish history and later also to Muslim lives. This led to a series of new buildings and displays, and a reinterpretation of existing displays, many dedicated to contemporary themes ranging from Omani fashion (the Omani state is an important recent donor of the museum), to European celebrations of Eid al-Fitr, and the poverty philosophy of the current Pope. One could teach a veritable course on the history of museum education here.

Two more layers to go.

First, there are the temporary exhibitions and events, which this year are related to ‘75 years of freedom’. ‘Freedom’ here refers to the period since the allied forces conquered the Dutch territory from the German forces in 1945. And, truly, the museum has some surreal tales to tell, of twentieth-century soldiers in bivouac on the mock-Roman military square of no less than Pontius Pilate himself; and of locals who refused to collaborate, hiding away in the nativity cave.

In WWII, people found a hiding place in the nativity cave.

But wait. There’s a final building: the Sanhedrin, the court where Jesus was reputedly trialled by a council of rabbis (such a council was called a sanhedrin). This structure, too, has Dutch national-heritage status. But must we therefore display it in the same way as it was built?

The Sanhedrin was artist Piet Gerrits’s interpretation of what such an assembly building, and such as assembly, may have looked like in ancient Judea, based on the Bible and on archaeological excavations, but, I suspect, also on the long art-historical tradition in which Gerrits had been educated. The building was installed in 1940 and a range of mannequins added in 1952. In the inner room, the assembly itself is taking place before our very eyes: eleven bearded men are passionately discussing Jesus’ verdict. Jesus himself must be imagined to have stood at the centre of the room, in the position where present-day visitors find themselves.

Now I may be mistaken, but when I enter the room, I feel there is something the matter with these mannequins. Eleven bearded men in togas, gesticulating vehemently. The expression on their faces – is it earnest, motivated to learn the truth, as you might expect a council of judges or jurors to be? Rather, their faces seem contorted in anger. Instead of dignified, some of the councillors look evil, as if they are playing the villain in a Disney film. Are they passionate in disagreement? Or, instead, in their agreement that Jesus should be convicted? One gets the sense that one is dealing with a mean set. Is a more historical interpretation of the Bible perhaps making way here for a more overtly ideological one? And what about the facial features of these councillors? Are their noses bigger than those of the figures who play a more positive role in the museum’s story of Jesus? Their teeth more often bared, their eyebrows more pronounced? And how about their postures and gestures, which certainly stand in a long tradition of Christian painting?

Standing in this room, I get the unpleasant feeling that I am looking at the remainders of a centuries-old Christian idea of Judaism. An old idea of Judaism that we now more commonly refer to as anti-Semitism, and that seems to have survived in the artistic style of the by that time 74-year-old artist Piet Gerrits, who may still have been caught up in his Catholic revival, a project which had by that time long been completed.

It may be time to give these sculptures a new context; to remove them from their self-evident place as telling a story that does not need a counter-story.

True, the much more recent interpretation sign in the courtyard of the Sanhedrin gives a fairly neutral explanation of the biblical story of Jesus’ last days. Still, the centre piece of that courtyard is a so-called Judas tree, which again draws attention primarily to Christian traditions of Jewish guilt and Christian martyrdom. It gives the entire Jesus route in the park a flavour of animosity rather than peace, love and forgiveness, which seem to be the aspects of the Christian faith which the current museum directors want to emphasise.

I am editing this column just as Facebook and Instagram have announced that they will start to remove some of the harmful stereotyping of Jews that happens on their platforms (although far from all). Facebook and Instagram are obviously surfing on the hype/working under the pressure of the current media attention for the Black Lives Matter movement. But the fight against racism, including anti-Semitism, is of course much older. And even within European museums, which are usually run by people of white, Christian backgrounds, efforts to get rid of the racism that is inherent in so many of these museums, have been long underway.

We all know that it is precisely the kind of hate-mongering stereotypes that are often propagated through images of Jesus’ last days, that keep sabotaging peaceful relations between (cultural) Christians, (cultural) Jews and (cultural) Muslims. Therefore, in a museum that is constantly reinventing itself anyhow, these are the images that need tweaking first of all; especially now that the museum’s new mission expressly preaches understanding between the faiths.

Museum Orientalis offers a veritable walk through time. A walk that is at times pleasant and picturesque, at times fascinating, but at times also uncomfortably close to the violent tendencies in our history.

Orientalis deserves a visit. But the Sanhedrin deserves a renewed display.

* See the interpretation signs in the museum itself, as well as the Heilig Land Stiching website.

All photos by APHG, unless noted otherwise.

For the museum at its most picturesque, see for instance this blog.

Gone With the Wind: Racisme als verdienmodel

Geschreven door Liedeke Plate

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De film zag ik voor het eerst in een bioscoop op de Champs-Élysées
in Parijs. Ik zal toen 16 of 17 jaar zijn geweest, en samen met mijn vriendin
Isabelle en haar jongere zus waren we die doordeweekse middag (in de
herfstvakantie?) op de zeldzame gelegenheid afgegaan om de net-geen-4-uur durende Autant en emporte le vent, zoals de film in het Frans heet, in
VOST te zien: version originale sous titrée, in het Engels (Amerikaans)
met ondertitels, en dus met de stemmen van Vivien Leigh en Clark Gable in
plaats van met Franse stemmen nagesynchroniseerd.

De bioscoop halverwege de chique Champs-Élysées was bekend
om zijn gigantisch scherm. Het zusje van mijn vriendin vond die VOST op dat (hele) grote doek dan ook zo’n geweldige ervaring dat ze in de zaal is blijven zitten om de film nog een keer ter zien. Toen we haar rond 10 uur ’s avonds kwamen ophalen stond er een journalist bij de uitgang. Wij schoven het zusje naar voren: inmiddels had zij de film 17 keer gezien, dat zou weleens een interessant verhaal kunnen opleveren. Maar ook Isabelle was een fan. Zij had de film weliswaar maar 13 keer gezien, het boek had ze meermalen gelezen en ze kon na lang voor de spiegel te hebben geoefend net als Vivien Leigh in de film één wenkbrauw optrekken.

Ik vertel dit verhaal om duidelijk te maken dat Gone With the Wind niet zomaar een film is, ‘in een andere tijd gemaakt, door kunstenaars van toen’, zoals onlangs in Trouw (11/6/20) stond. De film wordt ook in het heden getoond, de filmvertoning is een (re)productie en het gevolg van specifieke keuzes. Dat ik die film daar toen zag is niet toevallig. Het feit dat er een journalist op afkwam wijst op het bijzondere karakter van die filmvertoning in de bioscoop op de beroemde Champs-Élysées. Dat dit verhaal zich 40 jaar na de première afspeelde onderstreept het bewuste, gecureerde karakter van filmvertoning nog eens. Was dit jubileum de reden voor
de VOST-vertoning in de Franse bioscoop? Hier laat mijn geheugen me in de
steek, maar het zou goed kunnen. Een jubileum is immers een uitgelezen kans om de film weer eens onder de aandacht te brengen.

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Jubileum-edities van het boek en de film en speciale jubileumuitgaven van Life Magazine.

Gone With the Wind is de commercieel succesvolste
film ooit
(na inflatiecorrectie). Hij is gebaseerd op de bestseller met
dezelfde titel van de in 1949 op tragische wijze relatief jonggestorven
Margaret Mitchell. De filmrechten werden in 1936 voor een toen ongekend hoog bedrag verkocht en werden in 1987 door mediamagnaat Ted Turner aangekocht. De overige rechten bleven in beheer van Margaret Mitchell en haar erfgenamen. Door strategisch management van publicatierechten, auteursrechten (copyrights) en adaptatierechten (radio, televisie, toneel, opera, etc.) hebben de erfgenamen ervoor gezorgd dat de bestseller een van de bestverkopende en iconische boeken aller tijden bleef. Kortom, Gone With the Wind is een verdienmodel, gefundeerd op zorgvuldig gedoseerde aandacht voor een verhaal waarin de zogeheten Antebellum South wordt verheerlijkt; de periode vóór de Amerikaanse burgeroorlog, toen het Zuiden op slavernij leunde voor economische voorspoed.

Brandmanagement, het in de markt profileren van het merk Gone
With the Wind
, staat daarbij centraal. Er werden sequels gemaakt,
denk aan Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett (1991), verkocht met duidelijke
verwijzing naar Mitchells roman, vervolgens geadapteerd in een eveneens
commercieel succesvolle televisieminiserie (1994); en later Rhett Butler’s
People
(2007) en Ruth’s Journey (2014), allebei van Donald McCaig op
verzoek van de erfgenamen geschreven.

Al deze sequels en adaptaties hebben ervoor gezorgd dat de
belangstelling voor Gone with the Wind onverminderd bleef; en dat de
boekverkoop goed doorliep. Voor het schrijven van zo’n geautoriseerde sequel hadden ze overigens strikte richtlijnen, waaronder een verbod op homoseksuele of interraciale seks en op de dood van het hoofdpersonage Scarlett O’Hara.

De reis van Ruth in het bijzonder moest ervoor zorgen dat het racistische beeld dat aan film, boek en onderneming bleef kleven, genuanceerd werd. In de loop van de laatste decennia was de kritiek op het romantische
verhaal dat de historische werkelijkheid van de tijd waarin het zich afspeelt
verdoezelt, steeds luider geworden. In 2001 was na een uiteindelijk door de
erfgenamen verloren juridische strijd The Wind Done Gone van Alice Randall verschenen, waarin het verhaal van een halfzusje van Scarlett wordt verteld, dochter van Mammy en Scarletts vader, als parodie en correctie op Mitchells roman. Schrijvers en wetenschappers spraken toen hun steun
uit voor Randall omdat het naar hun idee tijd werd dat het Amerikaanse publiek een ander perspectief op het leven op de plantages zou krijgen dan die in Mitchells roman wordt geschetst.

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In het kielzog van de Black Lives Matter-protesten staat Gone With the Wind nu weer volop in de aandacht. Na hem eerst te hebben teruggetrokken is de Amerikaanse streamingdienst HBO Max inmiddels voornemens de film binnenkort weer beschikbaar te stellen, maar dan ingeleid door de Afrikaans-Amerikaanse filmwetenschapper Jacqueline Stewart die de film ‘in zijn verschillende historische contexten’ zal plaatsen. In zekere zin is dit enkel de volgende zet in deze zorgvuldig geregisseerde saga met als hoofddoel: het merk Gone With the Wind sterk houden en zo verkoopcijfers blijven stuwen. Immers, wie nog niet van de film had gehoord is nu nieuwsgierig gemaakt en zal hem willen zien. Daarmee is de mythische status van Mitchells werk weer verder verhoogd en zullen verkoopcijfers niet achterblijven. Een kritische inleiding kan de blik van de toeschouwer richten op de manier waarop de film witte suprematie verheerlijkt, met schitterende kostuums, imposante decors en oogstrelende cinematografie; en zo met andere ogen leren kijken naar hoe een tijdsbeeld met cinematografische middelen wordt gecreëerd. Het biedt echter nog niet de ruimte voor andere verhalen om de plek en aandacht te krijgen die Gone with the Wind al meer dan 80 jaar in de culturele verbeelding inneemt.

Materialities: a virus and face masks

Written by Anneke Smelik   

Image: Duurzame Mode 025

The fashion and beauty industries are suffering financially from the corona crisis, but some clothing companies, including large fast fashion ones such as Zara (Spain) and H&M (Sweden), are converting to the production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the form of face masks and protective gowns. Now that face masks are slowly entering the streets of European cities, there is the critical issue of accessibility: where to buy them and how to remain fashionable? DIY videos instruct people how to
make do with materials on hand, from fabric and sheets to bras and T-shirts. Volunteers make masks for hospitals and nursing homes, while private consumers have become producers at home.

Luxury brands like Armani, Gucci and Prada in Italy and LVMH in France (Dior, Fendi, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy) resort to making face masks for their respective governments, while luxury perfume makers such as Bvlgari and Guerlain have pledged to make hand sanitizers (Bramley 2020). Fashion brands and collaborations between industry and government become sources of local and national pride in times of crisis. To address aesthetic concerns many smaller fashion brands or designers are making fashionable face masks, including sequined, 3D printed and recyclable ones (Philipkoski 2020). In the Netherlands designer Sjaak Hullekes (Hulle Kes) and tech-fashion designer Melanie Brown (Bybrown) make fashionable face masks, while The Fashion Filter designs them together with the Technical University of Eindhoven. In the region Arnhem-Nijmegen the platform for sustainable fashion has developed a project with local designers to produce sustainable face masks: ‘FACE MASKS 025’.

In an earlier contribution to this blog I wrote about new materialism. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, materials and materialities come into stark relief. As the virus spreads globally from body to body, the importance of material protection, along with ‘social distancing’, becomes paramount. Initial material shortages of face masks, protective gowns, ventilators and testing swabs presented life-threatening conditions due to sheer demand as well as supply chain disruptions. By the end of April, many countries were recommending or demanding cloth face masks for everyone in public spaces, with the clarification that medical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers.

The question whether ‘to mask or not to mask’ (Eikenberry et al. 2020) has become quite the topic of debate. There have been mixed and dramatically changing messages whether the general public should engage in mask-wearing. Cultural as well as material and medical factors had influenced some of the earlier advice for the public not to mask in Europe and the USA. In addition to concerns about material shortages and perceptions of a false sense of security, there had been concerns about stigmatization and discrimination (Tufekci et al. 2020). Unlike the invisible virus, the mask is highly visible and has not been customary in western cultures. Mask usage in public for health purposes is much more common in Asian countries, especially since the SARS outbreak in 2003. In China, mask-wearing
is a practice associated with modern material culture.

While there are benefits to individual wearers, depending on the particular material and fit issues associated with the mask, it is basically an act of generosity to others to don a cloth mask. Inasmuch as ‘western’ cultures have tended toward individualist rather than collectivist needs, compliance requires a transformation in meaning and thinking. As Austria began to mandate mask-wearing in public spaces such as grocery stores, for example, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz noted that it would be a ‘big adjustment’ as ‘masks are alien to our culture’ (Norimitsu 2020).

The pandemic reminds us that we are all material subjects (Smelik, 2018), dependent on fabrics, clothes, and other materials not only for protective, but also for aesthetic, cultural, and social reasons. When I donned a – very ordinary – face mask for the first time, I was struck how hot it was walking in the sun, how it itched behind my ears, and that my glasses got fogged up. As I realized that the highly visible face mask is a material object that protects me, us, from the material yet invisible Covid 19 virus, I felt acutely how our daily life is characterized by non-human actors invading as well as protecting our all-too-human (and hence vulnerable) bodies. We are material subjects made up of nonhuman and human components within the larger contexts of material culture, local circumstances and global circuits.

* This blog is based on a text that Susan Kaiser and I wrote together, “Materials and materialities: Viral and sheep-ish encounters with
fashion”. Editorial introduction to Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, vol 11 nr 1, in press June 2020.

References:

Bramley, Ellie Violet (2020), ‘Prada the latest brand to make medical face masks’, The Guardian, 24 March.

Eikenberry, Steffen E.; Mancuso, Marina; Iboi, Enahoro; Phan, Tin, Eikenberry, Keenan; Kuang, Yang; Kostelich, Eric; and Gumel, Abba B. (2020), ‘To mask or not to mask: Modeling the potential for face mask use by the general public to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic’: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.06.20055624

Onishi, Norimitsu, and Méhuet, Constant (2020), ‘Mask-wearing is a very new fashion in Paris (and a lot of other places)’, New York Times, 9 April.

Philipkoski, Kristen (2020), ‘30+ fashionbrands pivoting to make stylish coronavirus masks’, Forbes, 12 April.

Smelik, Anneke (2018), ‘New materialism: A theoretical framework for fashion in the age of technological innovation’, International Journal of Fashion Studies, 5(1), pp. 31-52.

Tufekci, Zeynep; Howard, Jeremy; and Greenhalgh, Trish (2020), ‘The real reason to wear a mask’, The Atlantic, 22 April.