Notes on Being-Single

Written by Carlijn Cober


The incident
The date: Monday morning, November 11th. The location: my office. It’s a
day like any other. I open Google. I type something intellectual into the
search bar, press enter and BAM! There it was: an ad for National Singles Day.

To make matters worse, the advertisement isn’t from some fancy lingerie brand, an online bookstore or a food-related platform. No. This is where it gets really bleak. The ad, targeted at me and only me, is from Kruidvat.

Unwittingly, it popped up and punctured my brittle little heart.

I am unsure how to feel about this. In order to collect myself, I turn to cultural analysis. The advertisement seems festive, especially for a drugstore, with colorful hearts and a button saying “Happy Singles Day! Het VOORDEEL van single zijn!”. Here in caps (their typographical choice, not mine) is a clever pun based on ‘voordeel’ as both benefit and discount in Dutch. Clever Kruidvat. Based on this declaration I deduce that the ad for Singles Day presents being single as a celebratory fact, as a reason to indulge in consumerism and to “treat myself” (because if not me, then who?). I guess I feel okay about this. I click on the link, which takes me to their selection of items.

I suddenly feel less giddy and less celebratory, as all the pre-selected
encourage me to comfort myself, rather than treat myself, by splurging on things such as:

cozy socks, an XL bar of chocolate, de-stress sheet masks, an XXL fleece blanket, and snuggly, man-repellent footwear (UGGS).

The folder features some extra commentary on the latter item: “Cadeau waar je zélf happy van wordt!” (The gift that will make YOU happy). I interpret this as a sign that the Kruidvat is aware that UGGS are simply a sartorial mistake, and counters their ugliness by playing into the discourse of comfort, independence and self-determination. It doesn’t matter if they won’t satisfy fashion-forward people! They’re soft! They’re comfortable! Who cares about other people! These shoes will make YOU happy.

Another striking word here is the use of “happy”, instead of the Dutch ‘blij’. The incorporation of the word ‘happy’ into the Dutch language could have been the topic for one of Paulien Cornelisse’s books on the oddities of social language use. ‘Happy’ is one of those monstrous anomalies that occur either in combination with negation and illeism (‘Carlijn voelt zich niet zo happy’), or in speech directed to toddlers (‘Voelt Carlijntje zich niet zo happy?’). Either way, ‘happy’ has a sardonic quality.

I forgot to list the anti aging cream. This cream ensures that the single
person’s face does not display signs of aging; thereby figuratively erasing the time they have been single. A cream to cover up the dead time of wasted years spent alone. Well played, Kruidvat.


National Singles Day
When did Singles Day become a thing? For reasons I can’t explain, I feel drawn to investigate this phenomenon. By now it has been several minutes since ‘the incident’. I re-open Google. I am not sure if we are still friends. My browser is still under suspicion. No ads this time. Perhaps it knew it was a bold move from which I would need to recover.

The first hit leads me to Google’s questionable buddy Wikipedia, which informs me that this ‘national holiday’ derives from China. It began as a student initiative at Nanjing University in 1993, and was then gradually turned into a commercial spectacle. In terms of magnitude National Singles Day is now comparable to the shopping frenzy of Black Friday (the American phenomenon that by now has found its way to several other countries). To prove the popularity of this retail strategy: on this year’s Singles Day, Alibaba, the online retail platform of Chinese origin, made over 38
billion dollars in sales.[1]

The date, November 11th, is meaningful because of the abundance of ones
in 11-11.[2] In Limburg, where I grew up, this date announces the beginning of the ‘Carnaval’ season and is known as the fool’s number.[3]

The confession
Currently, there are about 3 million bachelors (m/f) in the Netherlands who might have felt equally surprised (single-shamed?) by these commercial deals. My web-browser, family and friends know I am one of them. This blog-post is part article, part confession.

Although my confession might not seem controversial to you, reader, comfortably distanced by your computer, my proclaimed identity (state? mode of being? status?) can have a startling effect on people. The discomfort it arouses in many an unaware conversational partner can result in a number of responses, including awkward silence, exclamations of disbelief (“No! You?”), well-intended advice (“The trick is to pretend not to be looking for someone”) or – perhaps the most cringe-worthy scenario – the reassurance that “surely, it won’t be for long!”.

Meanwhile, I have been single for almost four years now. Somewhere along the way, something shifted in my perception of ‘being-single’ as a concept. At first, my new single status meant hard-won freedom, an escape from the confinement of domestic gender roles. Being by myself, partner-less, childless, was a choice, my choice. Being-single was a declaration of independence. After two years or so of ‘being-single’, something shifted. Being alone no longer felt like a choice. It started to feel more and more like a predicament.

When I announced the topic of this article to my best friend, he asked me: “So, where do you stand on this?” Until then, it hadn’t crossed my mind that this was an issue I had to take a stance on. Will I declare single life to be the best thing that ever happened to me? Will I use this article as an open call? Will I delve into the “happy single” not as an urban myth, but as something real? Even mid-article (now, at this very moment) I am unsure how I feel about being single.

The Happy Single
Being a ‘happy single’ turned out to be a controversial topic around this time, when actress and UN gender spokeswoman Emma Watson defined herself as “self-partnered” in an interview with British Vogue on November 4th. When explicitly asked about her dating life, she stated:

“I have never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single’ spiel. […] It took me a long time, but I’m very happy. I call it being self-partnered”.[4]

The Internet had a field day riffing on the term. #Self-partnered became a trending topic on Twitter and was discussed by several news outlets, including The Washington Post and Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. The (digital) controversy was real, as public opinion went back and forth between praise and mockery. The mixed responses reveal that people who proclaim to be happy and single, like Emma Watson, raise suspicion as well as admiration. Above all, the controversy reveals that the image of the ‘happy single’ is not taken at face value. Is it possible to be un-partnered and fully blissful with oneself?

In the Dutch context, “the happy single” has been made famous by a series of sketches by the satirical television program Koefnoen on “Ipie the happy single”. Ipie is a character whose hairdo is a claim of independence, known and satirized as the “kort pittig kapsel”. In the case of Ipie, “happy single” functions as a euphemism for bitter and unwanted. In other words, it was pure “spiel”. I thought the word was some LA slang based on the German
word for ‘game’ or ‘performance’, but the Cambridge Dictionary tells me that this is “a speech, especially one that is long and spoken quickly and is
intended to persuade the person listening about something”.[5] In my head, a tiny voice translates this polite definition into “lies”. My office roommate looks up from his desk, and it is at this moment I realize this tiny voice is coming out of me, as I am mumbling aloud.

The incident felt like something that could have happened to Carrie Bradshaw, the 21st century patroness saint of single women. I couldn’t help but wonder… What does it mean to be single?

Firstly, being single is a day-to-day practice, an activity of existing for and with oneself. It means dinner for one, which suddenly becomes an issue when one is tasked with finding the least awkward restaurants to be alone when eating out. It means telling the waiter you’re not waiting for anyone else. It means being led to a spot far away from the window. Secondly, it is an indicator for a relationship status. On a binary, slightly normative level, you are either in a relationship or you’re not. That having said, there are many gradations nowadays, including long-term casual hookups, friends with benefits and the ‘situationship’.[6] Thirdly, being single is not simply an indicator for relationship-status; it is a mode of being, an ontological form.

Heidegger declares that a fundamental aspect of Being (Dasein) is Being-with (Mitsein): “So far as Dasein is at all, it has Being-with-one-another as its kind of Being”.[7] For Heidegger, the phenomenon of loneliness proves that we are inherently connected to others: “The Other can be missing only in and for a Being-with. Being-alone is a deficient mode of Being-with; its very possibility is the proof of this.”[8] In this sense, we are social
creatures to the core, who are formed by social practices and by our sharing of the world with others. We are in the world not for or by ourselves, but as part of intricate networks. The observation that loneliness stems from connectedness feels comforting at first glance, like the adage: “This too shall pass”. Yet all it brings to my mind is how elephants (emotional role models, in many ways) can actually die from a broken heart.

With the best of intentions, someone recently said to me: “But you’re not alone! You’re with your dog!” In his preparation for a lecture course on How To Live Together (2013), Roland Barthes mentions that even hermits are known to have animal companions, illustrated by the example of Saint Gregory who is “deemed to be overly fond of his kitten”.[9]
Perhaps this observation holds true for my fluffy roommate and me too. Does being-with-animal eradicate Being-alone? My dog seems happy to see me when I come home, yet he never asks me how my day was…

But being-a-hermit is not the same as being-single, they are different types of being-alone. Chosen solitude feels differently from reluctant solitude. There should be more words to describe different feelings of aloneness, as many as there are Dutch words for rain.

There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely, and this is a
difference single people often emphasize in their interaction with others.
Being-single has a connotation of loneliness, of a sad state deprived of
personal contact. I won’t deny that at times this is the case. I am reminded of a note in Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary (2010) written on November 11, 1977, almost a month after the death of his mother:

“Solitude = having no one at home to whom you can say: I’ll be back at a specific time or who you can call to say (or to whom you can just say): voilà, I’m home now.”[10]

My dog doesn’t speak French.

The Alone-standing Woman

The term ‘single’ strikingly differs from more or less related terms such as
‘separated’, ‘divorcee’, ‘widow’, ‘decoupled’ – all of which carry the traces
of a previous relationship. The word ‘single’ stands alone, with no shared past to document. In her book Risking who one is: Encounters with contemporary art and literature (1994) Susan Rubin Suleiman has dedicated a chapter to ‘Living Between: The Lonveliness of the “alone-standing woman”’.[11] In this chapter, she talks about her friend, the polyglot experimental writer and literary critic Christine Brooke-Rose. In this chapter, she theorizes the transitional mode of the several roles Brooke-Rose embodies, such as translator, scholar, traveller, multilingual European, and “alone-standing woman”. The word has an odd ring to it in English, as it is a pun on the German “Alleinstehender”, also common in Dutch as ‘alleenstaande’. In its most literal translation being an “alleenstaande” means standing alone, facing the world alone, but also to be independent, self-reliant, on your own.

I want to stress the quality of ‘transition’ that Suleiman uses in her
description of Brooke-Rose. On an intuitive level, it feels as though
being-single differs from other categories of being, such as being-together,
being-a-family, being-childless, being-separated or other modes of being that point towards a certain identity, temporal framework or performative role. Unlike these more or less fixed notions of ‘Being’, being-single also has the quality of a temporary, transitive state; an in-between, a becoming. In
philosophical terms, the notion of an eternal becoming is often described as something positive, for instance in the Deleuzian or Braidottian sense of the word. However, in the case of ‘being-single’, I’m not sure “becoming-single” has a better ring to it. It sounds more like ‘conscious uncoupling’,
popularized by Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow after her break with Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin (both of whom have since consciously coupled with other people). Isn’t being single generally something one hopes will be over soon? Is freedom to be found in this specific form of ‘becoming’? Perhaps.

But what happens if someone doesn’t view this relationship-status as a transitory state? As we have seen, the idea of the ‘happy single’ raises alarm over its authenticity. Being-single and satisfied is somehow perceived as an inauthentic attitude. This brings us to another touchy point related to ‘being-single’, that is the need for someone else. Among the many lists that circulate on the Internet summarizing the positive aspects of being single, the statement that ‘being-single is a skill’ stands out. The article claims that being single teaches you how to thrive on your own, and how to establish healthy habits. Somehow the everyday banalities of cooking and cleaning and living for one feel like more of an effort than practices of shared living. I realize there is an element of care here that is somehow important, although difficult to pinpoint. It is precisely this element of care, or ‘self-care’, that is prominent in ads targeted to singles in order to yield profit. If anything, the Kruidvat advertisement shows that notions of care, self, independence, co-existence, authenticity, comfort and togetherness all link together in the discourse of singleness. They create a sticky social web that I am still trying to unsnarl. If I get any closer to an answer, reader, I will let you know. Meanwhile, I’m going to buy something that makes ME happy. Most likely those cozy socks.



[1] Arjun Kharpal
(November 11th, 2019) ‘Alibaba breaks Singles Day Record with more than 38
billion in sales’, in: (November 12th, 2019) Via:


[3] Redactie Ensie (April 8th, 2015) ‘Elfde van de Elfde’, in: Ensie.  Via: (November 14th, 2019).

[4] Paris Lees (November 4th, 2019) ‘Emma Watson: “I’m very happy being single. I call it being self-partnered” ’, in: British Vogue. (November 8th, 2019)


[6] Anna Medaris Miller (May 17th, 2019) ‘Are you in a situationship?’, in: Women’s Health Magazine.  (November 28th, 2019)

[7] Heidegger, Martin. ‘Being and Time’, in: The Continental Ethics Reader, edited by Mathew Callarco and Peter Atterton. London/New York: Routledge, 2003, 40.

Heidegger, Martin. ‘Being and Time’, in: The Continental Ethics Reader, edited by Mathew Callarco and Peter Atterton. London/New York: Routledge, 2003, 37.

[9] Roland Barthes, How To Live Together: Novelistic Somulations of Some Everyday Spaces. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, 30.

[10] Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary: October 26 1977 – September
15, 1979.
New York: Hill and Wang, 2010, 44.

[11] Susan Rubin Suleiman, Risking Who One Is: Encounters with
Contemporary Art and Literature. 
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994,

Code Diversiteit & Inclusie


Geschreven door Liedeke Plate


De invoering van de Code Diversiteit & Inclusie in de culturele en creatieve sector markeert een kentering in onze samenleving. Al lang wordt er gedebatteerd over meer diversiteit in het culturele veld en een inclusief
. Het startschot voor deze maatschappelijk discussie werd
gegeven door toenmalige staatssecretaris Rick van der Ploeg, die in 1999 met zijn cultuurnota Cultuur als confrontatie en zijn programma voor culturele diversiteit de knuppel in het hoenderhok gooide. Zijn constatering dat de cultuursector erg wit was en slechts een beperkte publieksgroep bereikte en zijn opdracht om daar verandering in aan te brengen zorgde voor de noodzakelijke opschudding. Sindsdien worden er stappen vooruit en achteruit gezet. Wat maakt de Code Diversiteit & Inclusie dan nu anders? Allereerst is de Code Diversiteit & Inclusie door de sector zelf geschreven. Bedoeld ‘voor iedereen die werkt in de culturele en creatieve sector, voor alle aan de sector gerelateerde organisaties, voor iedereen die de sector ondersteunt en alle afnemers van kunst, cultuur, creatieve producten en diensten’ raakt de Code bovendien echt iedereen. Tot slot staat deze Code niet op zichzelf, maar vormt het onderdeel van een reeks inspanningen om de diversiteit van de Nederlandse samenleving te reflecteren. Daarom
zou de Code Diversiteit & Inclusie weleens het moment kunnen markeren waarop het zogenaamde ‘tipping point’, het kantelpunt is bereikt: het moment waarop voldoende kritische massa is bereikt en veranderingen om de sector diverser en inclusiever te maken in een stroomversnelling raken. 


De Code
De Code Diversiteit & Inclusie wordt gepresenteerd als ‘een instrument van zelfregulering.’ Het is een gedragscode van, voor en door de Nederlandse culturele en creatieve sector met als doel hun[i] werk, producten, diensten en organisaties voor iedereen toegankelijk te maken. Aandacht gaat hierbij uit naar de ‘vier P’s’: Programma, Publiek, Personeel en Partners. Zo worden de verschillende aspecten, partijen en dimensies van de culturele en creatieve sector bij de veranderingen betrokken: de code betreft niet
alleen de producten en diensten, hun afnemers en alle mensen die de culturele en creatieve sector werken, maar ook externe personen en organisaties waar ze opdrachten aan verstrekken of mee samenwerken.

De code raakt iedereen
‘De code is er voor iedereen die werkt in de culturele en
creatieve sector, voor alle aan de sector gerelateerde organisaties, voor
iedereen die de sector ondersteunt en alle afnemers van kunst, cultuur,
creatieve producten en diensten. De code is van toepassing op gesubsidieerde en niet-gesubsidieerde organisaties.’ Zo staat er in de Code Diversiteit & Inclusie. Wie deze toelichting op de doelgroep voor de Code leest, realiseert zich al snel dat deze dus haast iedereen in Nederland omvat. De Code is er immers voor de hele culturele en creatieve sector, alle werkenden binnen de sector (d.w.z. alle werkgevers, opdrachtgevers, werknemers, opdrachtnemers, zelfstandig ondernemers, stagiairs,
vrijwilligers en leden van de Raden van Bestuur of Raden van Toezicht), alle
aan de sector gerelateerde organisaties (o.a. brancheorganisaties, werkgevers-en werknemersorganisaties, adviesorganen, uitvoeringsorganisaties, onderzoeksinstellingen en (kunstvak)opleidingen) en voor iedereen die de sector ondersteunt – overheden (Rijk, provincies en gemeenten), fondsen (publiek en privaat) en overige sponsors zoals het bedrijfsleven of privépersonen. Omdat de culturele en creatieve sector sowieso haast iedereen op de een of andere manier raakt – de Code hanteert als afbakening de door het Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau in Het culturele leven (2018) gehanteerde indeling, te weten: podiumkunst, beeldende kunst, literatuur, film & videokunst, architectuur, design, digitale cultuur, roerend erfgoed, onroerend erfgoed en immaterieel erfgoed – zullen de effecten van de Code verstrekkend zijn en de gevolgen ervan voelbaar in allerlei aspecten van het sociale en culturele leven.

Concerted effort
De effecten en gevolgen van de Code zullen verstrekkend zijn niet alleen vanwege de aard van de culturele en creatieve sector en de plaats ervan in het sociale leven, maar ook omdat de Code onderdeel vormt van een reeks inspanningen om de diversiteit van de samenleving te reflecteren. De Code Diversiteit & Inclusie staat niet alleen. Ongeveer tegelijkertijd met de presentatie van de Code kwam de SER met het advies Diversiteit in de top, tijd voor versnelling waarin de SER pleitte voor meer gender- en culturele diversiteit in bedrijven en een inclusieve organisatiecultuur.
Deze inspanningen voor inclusiviteit volgen bovendien op eerdere inspanningen, ook in andere sectoren, zoals de politie en de zorg, alsook ontwikkelingen in de rest van de wereld. Denk aan de discussie die in 2015 onder de hashtag #OscarsSoWhite ontspon en hier aandacht genereerde voor het gebrek aan diversiteit in de Nederlandse media en filmindustrie; of aan de verhitte discussie in de Internationale Raad voor Musea afgelopen zomer over een nieuwe definitie van het museum als ‘democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures’. Terwijl ik dit stukje schrijf werken studenten en docenten in Amsterdam aan een akkoord over een inclusief en maatschappelijk betrokken hoger onderwijs en wordt de Canon van Nederland onder leiding van James Kennedy herijkt in opdracht van de minister. Tezamen vormen deze en vele andere hier onvermelde
inspanningen voor inclusiviteit als het ware een concerted effort om onze instituties net zo divers te maken als de samenleving die ze bedienen: een gezamenlijke inspanning, niet per se georkestreerd – veel initiatieven ontstaan immers onafhankelijk van elkaar – maar wel in (goede) harmonie.

Een stappenplan
Om de gedragscode te implementeren biedt de Code Diversiteit & Inclusie een vijfstappenplan.


Beginnend bij zelfreflectie – waar sta je ten aanzien van diversiteit en inclusie; wat zijn de blinde vlekken van jezelf en van je organisatie, onbewuste vooroordelen – naar het expliciet maken van het belang
en de betekenis van diversiteit en inclusie voor de organisatie in missie,
visie en doelstellingen, het creëren van commitment en draagvlak, het maken van een plan van aanpak en het monitoren en evalueren van de uitvoering ervan, biedt het vijfstappenplan een helder actieplan om met de gedragscode aan de slag te gaan. Voor de opleiding Algemene
is de betekenis ervan tweeledig. Als zelfregulerende
gedragscode van de culturele en creatieve sector – de sector waar ons onderwijs zich op richt – wordt de Code Diversiteit & Inclusie besproken in onze colleges: wat betekent de Code voor ballet? De muziekwereld? Kan de boekenbranche nog wel achterblijven? Zo leren onze studenten ook dit maatschappelijk belang van kunst begrijpen en bepleiten.
Daarnaast biedt de Code handvatten om ons eigen onderwijs inclusiever te maken. Als opleiding voor allround cultuurwetenschappers zijn wij immers zelf een aan de culturele en creatieve sector gerelateerde organisatie voor wie de code van toepassing is. We gaan er dus mee aan de slag, om onze studenten nog beter op de wereld van morgen voor te bereiden.


[1] Volgens de Van Dale zou ik hier ‘zijn’ moeten schrijven. In het Nederlands is het woord ‘sector’ immers mannelijk. Met ‘hun’ kies ik hier voor inclusiever taalgebruik.



Happiness is a Weird and White Album

Written by Dennis Kersten

Dennis Kersten on that road, January 1994.

To mark their 50th anniversaries, The Beatles recently re-released three of their most iconic albums: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Beatles (1968) and Abbey Road (1969). They were remixed by the son of producer George Martin and accompanied by demos, studio outtakes and lavishly illustrated books. Totally unprecedented, like so much about The Beatles is, all three went to number one in the British charts again,
cementing Sergeant Pepper’s status as the best-selling rock album in the UK ever.

After so many years of intense scrutiny, you would think there is nothing new to be learnt about The Beatles and their music. As Paul McCartney and George Harrison joked after the completion of their mid-1990s retrospective Anthology project, their next release would have to be called Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel. But the “new” Sergeant Pepper, White Album and Abbey Road have much on offer that will interest both old and new fans. The albums themselves showcase how wildly, and weirdly versatile John,
Paul, George and Ringo were, while the bonus material sheds new light on their working methods and personal relations.

The Beatles were once dubbed a “four-headed monster” by Mick Jagger because they thought, spoke and moved like one being. But when you listen to their three most important post-touring albums and notice their stylistic and emotional complexity, you wonder if the opposite might also be true: that with each individual Beatle, we all got four personalities for the price of one. Ubiquitous and mass consumed, a twenty-first-century listener would almost forget how unconventional many Beatle songs are – musically and lyrically, but also recording and production-wise.

There is no better reminder than The Beatles, the group’s longest and most varied record. Of the three anniversary sets, this one is the most revealing with regard to the Fabs’ versatility, but also to the later Beatles’ explicit exploration of their essential “weirdness”. Instantly nicknamed the “White Album”, it was released in November 1968, after months of recording at Abbey Road studios. Their first and only double album, it features the songs The Beatles brought back from a trip to India, where they had been
practising transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Despite its spiritually enlightened origins, the White Album reflected a turbulent period for the band as well as the world in general: The Beatles began to fall apart, while for many other people 1968 was not exactly a second “Summer of Love” either.

The White Album arrived almost 18 months after Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the record to which it relates as an antithesis, down to its title and almost completely white sleeve design. However, the album was a massive hit, even without the inclusion of “Hey Jude”, their biggest selling single at the time. Half a century after it first hit the number one spot, The Beatles is still hugely popular and incredibly influential. It is hard to understand that it is that old now. All the things that can happen in 50 years’ time: in 1968, Donald Trump had only just joined his father’s real estate company, laying the foundations of his current business empire, while Britain still had to enter the EU. Since then, you could have played the White Album itself about 292,000 times. It has been with us ten years longer than John Lennon ever lived.

The prize outtake of the anniversary edition is take 18 of “Revolution”, all ten minutes of it, the first time they are officially released. The first song to be recorded for the White Album, it immediately set the tone. With him manically repeating the word “alright”, it sounds as if Lennon has brought along his friends to an introductory session of Primal Scream therapy. The early take resembles nothing on Sergeant Pepper or, indeed, any other
Beatle record. Moreover, with its “shoo-be-doo-wop” backing vocals, it presents The Beatles’ most explicitly political lyrics to date in a comedic and self-deprecating musical form. Last, but not least, a new, female voice can be heard asserting itself: that of Lennon’s new partner Yoko Ono.

With some overdubbing, the relatively conventional first three minutes of this version of “Revolution” made its way onto the finished record (as “Revolution 1”), while its longer, more experimental part is quoted throughout the White Album’s spooky sound collage “Revolution 9”. All of a sudden, “All You Need is Love” sounded so 1967…

On “Revolution”, take 18, Lennon appears to reacquaint himself with the “screaming” vocal style of rock ‘n’ roll covers like “Twist and Shout” and “Money” (both from 1963), one he would further develop on solo songs like “Cold Turkey” (1969) and “Mother” (1970). Of course, he had always been a fearless singer, but perhaps he needed reminding from Ono that vocals are most expressive when captured spontaneously, ignoring musical conventions or recording regulations.

For many years, popular wisdom had it that around the recording of The Beatles, Ono infiltrated the band’s inner circle and like some Class A drug went to Lennon’s head. In that particular narrative, the album signifies a break in The Beatles’ career and “Yoko” functions as the main explanation of its deconstruction of much of what had endeared people to the group originally. It is fairer to say that around the start of the White Album
sessions Ono re-connected Lennon with parts of his pre-Beatlemania self by awakening what had been dormant in his writing, singing and performing for a number of years.

The White Album sounds like the rebirth of Lennon the rock ‘n’ roller, of the man who, along with McCartney and Harrison, entertained the audiences of night clubs in Hamburg long before The Beatles had a recording contract. In 1960, their repertoire was not that extensive yet, but as they had to “mach Schau” to attract customers, they turned their set into some kind of variety act, with hour-long versions of Ray Charles songs and on-stage stand-up to amuse the crowd and keep themselves awake.

This is precisely the feeling you get from “Revolution” and of The Beatles as a whole. Improvised and undisciplined, but also energetic, emotionally all over the place and contagiously funny, the White Album is what one of those “long, long, long” nights in Hamburg must have felt like. Did they recognize this themselves? Is that why they jammed Buddy Holly classics,
night club-style, while trying to get songs about blackbirds, pigs and sheepdogs named Martha on tape?

The Beatles may be said to be “lo fi” avant la lettre. In places, it is messy, unpolished and underdeveloped, but, of course, it was meant to be the
anti-Pepper. While the band’s psychedelic album presents the pinnacle of what could be achieved with mid-Sixties studio technology, the more down-to-earth White Album is all about feel. The bonus tracks of its remix version
only confirms this idea. When Harrison asks Lennon at the start of an outtake of “Sexy Sadie” how he should play it, the song’s composer answers, “Whatever you want. Feel it.”

The Beatles, not just Lennon, should have recognized Ono as a kindred spirit in this respect –  a pity bad blood got in the way, especially
with McCartney perhaps. The younger half of the band’s core songwriting team has long been dogged by accusations of superficiality, of  smoothing over lack of substance with studio trickery. Pepper and the second side
of Abbey Road would be more McCartneyesque from that perspective, the White Album more Lennonian. Certainly, Lennon’s songs on The Beatles are almost without exception brilliant: “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I’m So Tired”, “Julia”. Of course, there is syrupy album closer “Goodnight”. But then, in the great Beatle tradition of giving away sub-standard Lennon/McCartneys to either their drummer or The Rolling Stones, Lennon asked Starr to sing that one.

In comparison, some of McCartney’s contributions do not transcend the level of lightweight earwormery, or that of “granny music shit” (Lennon’s words). In addition, McCartney does occasionally come across like a control freak. His demo of “Back in the USSR”, for instance, sounds almost exactly like the recording the completed White Album opens with. He even hums the solo, leaving Harrison little freedom to “feel” his way into the song.

However, many of the other demos and outtakes tell another story. When McCartney is in his tear-up-the-rule-book mode, he is up there with Lennon and Ono as avant-gardist. On a good day for rock ‘n’ roll, the “cute Beatle” could be as improvised as the others, and especially the White Album proves it. McCartney learnt to let go and let rip from immersing himself in experimentation with surrealist automatism, which, on The Beatles,
would result in “untypical” trash rock like “Helter Skelter”, but also oddball
throwaways like “Wild Honey Pie”.

As is the case with Lennon, the White Album anticipates McCartney’s work after The Beatles. RAM (1971), his second solo album, is possibly the “Whitest” of all of his post-1970 output. Like The Beatles, it “verges from the sublime to the ridiculode”, to quote some of the studio banter on the anniversary edition. Perhaps not coincidentally, RAM now ranks as one
of the most exciting records he has made on his own.

McCartney always responded enthusiastically to Lennon’s madder ideas and while he could be egotistical about the recording of his own songs (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” drove Lennon bonkers), he contributed more to the band, in the interest of the band, than his caricatural image allows for. In fact, McCartney frequently adds the X factor to other people’s songs. Think of the trippy Mellotron intro to Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967), or the ferocious guitar solo on Harrison’s “Taxman” (1966). On the White Album, too, the McCartney magic is often in the details of songs by the other three. Witness the piano at the start of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as well as the cow bell on Lennon’s “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”.

Again, that 18th take of “Revolution” says it all. Towards its conclusion, with Lennon screaming “Alriiiight!!!” while lying on the studio floor, McCartney starts singing the Beatles’ first single “Love Me Do”, much like Lennon sang “She Loves You” (1963) over the outro of “All You Need is Love”. Bonding over the ridiculing of their younger, “naïve” selves: another great Beatle tradition – at least in the post-Pepper period. McCartney, Harrison and Starr also keep playing long after Lennon has said he has had enough. Obviously, the more outlandish three quarters of “Revolution” cannot be simply dismissed as a John & Yoko ego trip.

Just before the end of the take, a giggling Ono asks Lennon if her contribution was “too much”. She must have recognized The Beatles as a fundamentally anarchic environment, though; they were the perfect place to bring her own conceptual art to. As the outtakes on the anniversary edition of the White Album confirm, by casting Ono in the role of the “evil” intruder, we not only do injustice to her, but also misunderstand the avant-gardism at the heart of Beatle music itself. When it comes to The Beatles’ weirdness, it was not just “the witch” wot done it.

Will the Fab Four give their earlier albums the same remix treatment? 2023 sees the 60th anniversary of their debut, Please Please Me, which was recorded in one single session – 200 days faster than the White Album. Judging from the three box sets that have already been released,
they should definitely keep scraping the barrel. With a band like The Beatles, nothing is ever “too much”.

The Gallery of H.M.S. Calcutta, by James Tissot (c. 1876)

Written by Jan Baetens

Last month a major retrospective of the work of the nineteenth-century French painter James Tissot (1836–1902) opened in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. The exhibition will travel to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in the spring of 2020 and will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the French cultural spring season. Working on a brief essay for the exhibition catalogue, I could revisit the work of an artist who has fascinated me for years.

Tissot is the chronicler par excellence of nineteenth-century modern life, but his work is generally allowed into the canon only reluctantly. Contrary to his avant-garde artist friends, Tissot maintained a decidedly academic style throughout his career. As a result, he has often been rejected as an unadventurous and commercial painter. Regardless of Tissot’s style, however (which is brilliant in its own way), his scenes of everyday
bourgeois life are often extremely clever. They excel in subtle psychology,
social satire and a sharp sense of humour.

A point in case is The Gallery of H.M.S. Calcutta. The painting depicts a young naval officer and two women on the stern balcony of a navy training ship, entangled in what appears to be a love triangle. The woman on the right hides her face, and thus her left ear, behind a fan, possibly asking the young man, in Victorian fan language, not to betray her secret. The shadow on the window panes in the back of the painting, in the meantime, suggests the man’s closeness to the other woman. The conspicuous heart shapes discernible in the metal railing fencing off the balcony leave little doubt about what is going on.


James Tissot, 1876, The Gallery of H.M.S. Calcutta

Tissot’s choice to locate his scene on this particular ship, moored in Portsmouth dockyard at the time, and to include the ship’s name in the title, can hardly be accidental. It has been suggested that he used the
name of the ship as a pun, giving an unexpected twist to the meaning of the painting. ‘Calcutta’ would then refer to the French ‘Quel cul t’as’, or ‘what an ass you have’, and would thus direct our attention not so much to the stern of the ship as to that of the woman on the right, whose languid pose and hourglass figure are echoed in the ship’s undulating forms and simultaneously mirrored by the shape of the chairs on the balcony.

The author Henry James called the painting banal and vulgar, but Tissot’s joke seems less rude once we realise that it does not just make fun of the woman but is also made at the expense of the young officer, whose mind we may be reading in the phrase ‘Quel cul t’as’, or even at the expense of
ourselves, who may have been thinking the same thing before suddenly grasping Tissot’s play on words. The joke can also be seen as a satirical comment on the excesses of contemporary fashion, for the woman is probably wearing a dress with a so-called cul de Paris, a padded undergarment designed to emphasise the back of the dress (and thus the woman’s backside). Finally, the combination of ‘Quel cul t’as’ with ‘H.M.S.’, or ‘Her Majesty’s Ship’, may even be read as a disrespectful nod to the Queen.

Tissot’s joke, whether we appreciate it or not, comes strikingly close to the pun in Marcel Duchamp’s much more famous L.H.O.O.Q. of 1919. This work is a simple photographic reproduction of the Mona Lisa to which Duchamp added a moustache and five letters. When spelled out in full, in French, the letters read as ‘elle a chaud au cul’ or ‘she has a hot ass’, the underlying suggestion being that this observation may explain the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile.


Marcel Duchamp, 1919, L.H.O.O.Q.

Duchamp’s iconoclast gesture questions the western art historical canon and even the very concept of art in ways that Tissot would never have thought possible – or permissible for that matter – but his pun is crude in comparison with Tissot’s more ambiguous double entendre. There are many ways in which Tissot is the more conservative artist and person of the pair, but his sense of humour seems at least as advanced and sophisticated as Duchamp’s. An unbiased reassessment of his art, made possible by the exhibitions in San Francisco and Paris, seems only fair.

Read more in:

– Nancy Rose Marshall and Malcolm Warner, James Tissot: Victorian Life/Modern Love, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1999.

– Melissa Buron (ed.), James Tissot: Fashion and Faith, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Franscisco and Paris: Musée d’Orsay, Munich: Prestel, 2019.

Parisian Paradoxes

Written by Frederik van Dam


A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of spending two days in the city of light. Following professional as well as personal inclinations, I visited three exhibitions, which were strikingly different in size, organization, and
ambition – different to such an extent, indeed, that only the chilly and surly
demeanor of the porters at the entrance reminded me of their shared setting in Paris. In the following remarks, I would like to briefly reflect on these exhibitions so as to ponder the ways in which exhibitions shape our understanding of art, often in paradoxical ways.

The first exhibition was ‘Resolutely Modern’, an absolutely massive
retrospective of the French avant-garde painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of theatres and dancers in Montmartre have become iconic; his turn to posters as a medium for his art was revolutionary. Consider, for instance, La Goulue, a poster that is on display at this exhibition in the various stages of the printing process. The exhibition explores the many intersections between Toulouse-Lautrec’s work and that of his contemporaries. In the very first space, for instance, his work is compared to that of his teacher, Fernand Cormon, a historical painter. Seeing Cormon’s tableaux, the viewer is faced with a view of history that is marked not by the progress of civilization but by barbarity. This notion illuminates the art of Toulouse-Lautrec, in which supposedly civilized life is stripped of its veneer, so as to show the animality that lurks beneath. More recognizable points of reference, such as Degas and van Gogh, are present as well. Like these artists, Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the painters of modern urban life, and its seedy side in particular; his art has been pigeonholed as decadent or, less charitably, degenerate – a view that was reinforced by his physical disability and his bohemian lifestyle (at the exhibition, one learns that Toulouse-Lautrec sometimes stayed in brothels for weeks on end). As such, Toulouse-Lautrec’s work questions the distinction between high art (culture for the elite) and low art (culture for mass-consumption) that was so characteristic of his own time.
On the one hand, his works did not result in financial gain, but were
appreciated an bought by people belonging to his inner circle. On the other
hand, he took ‘vulgar’ culture as his subject, which may lead one to infer that his works were meant as an appeal to popular taste. In other words, Toulouse-Lautrec tried to have his cake and eat it. Yet, in the long run, his approach was successful, as this exhibition shows: a huge portion of his work is now displayed in the Grand Palais, a cultural epicentre, in an exhibition that spans three floors. The exhibition is so vast that as one proceeds, one begins to believe that it will never end. The story that the exhibition tells, then, is different from the effect that it achieves: while the exhibition explores the local and particular qualities of this marginal artist, it at the same time sanctifies this art as being of universal and everlasting value. My own feeling, on leaving the exhibition, was that, perhaps, Toulouse-Lautrec’s work was too popular, too vulgar, and that this
excessive vulgarity (which I here use in the qualitative and not the evaluative sense of the word) was what has made these works so prestigious in the long run.

The second exhibition was suffused with a more intimate atmosphere. I first discovered the wonderful Musée Jacquemart André in 2013, when my interest in Victorian literature led me to the museum’s exhibition of Victorian art, Désirs & volupté à l’époque victorienne. This exhibition showcased works from private collection of Pérez Simón. The exhibition that I saw this year featured works from another private collection, that of Alvaro Saieh and Ana Guzmán, ‘one of the most precious and little-known private collections of Renaissance art in the world’, as the booklet informs us. Unlike the monumental scale of the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the Grand Palais, which mostly consists of works that are in public hands,
and which promises to give the audience an overview, the exhibitions at Musée Jacquemart André appeal to a more select audience, composed of connoisseurs who already have such an overview, and who will be able to appreciate these private collections without the help of a framework. In the case of Désirs & Volupté, I managed to find my way, which was partly due to the fact that as a Victorianist I could place the paintings I saw. In the case of The Alana Collection: Masterpieces of Italian Painting, however, I was lost.
And this was unexpected, for there is a strong synergy between the exhibition and the museum’s permanent collection, which has a focus on medieaval and early modern works of art: an introductory film nicely highlights the many echoes that are thus created. No, I think I felt lost not because of my inability to understand the works in themselves, but because of their presentation. The exhibition’s title already points to nature of the problem: whereas in the case of Désirs & Volupté the name of the
collector was willing to share his collection with the wider public was hidden in the text itself, in the case of The Alana Collection, their names were emphatically present. The exhibition is in many ways a tribute to their willingness to share their works with the wider public. The first room of the exhibition tries to replicate the benefactors’ living room, where their paintings vie for space. While the effort is an interesting one, its purpose is all too obvious, and the result makes it difficult to examine and scrutinize the actual works. Even more, the exhibition even features a rather hastily taken photograph of their living quarters, so that viewers can fully appreciate these works’ contemporary location.


The first room of the exhibition, replicating the benefactors’ living room


The benefactors’ actual living room

As a result, the actual paintings get short shrift, even though these are magnificent. What the visitor remembers is the name of the collectors, but perhaps not in the way that the collectors envisioned. This is not meant as a jibe: without the efforts of private collectors such as Alvaro Saieh and Ana Guzmán, the art world would not be able to function in the way that it does, and it is their good right to ask that their willingness to share their passion with the world be acknowledged and recognized. What I want to highlight is another paradoxical effect: if one so openly asks for recognition, as in the present exhibition, the opposite effect is achieved. To be truly successful, an exhibition should let the collection speak for itself; only thus will the interested viewer fully appreciate the care that the collectors have taken, and be willing to recognize as benefactors, in the full sense of the word. I am aware of the irony that, of course, by addressing this issue, I have paid the collectors the compliment of talking about them rather than their collection.

The third exhibition which I saw replicated a similar dynamic on an international stage. The musée du Luxembourg, which lies adjacent to the French senate, features an exhibition with masterpieces from ‘The golden age of British painting: from Reynolds to Turner’. These works are on loan from Tate Britain. By allowing a select choice of works to travel to the heart of France, British art is given an ambassadorial function. It is paradoxical to encounter these British masterpieces in a French setting, but the effect is salutary one. The curators have created a fine and interesting narrative, one which manages to sustain the viewer’s interest, which is difficult to maintain when one is submerged in the halls of their home, as in the exhibition on Toulouse-Lautrec. As a result, this exhibition sheds some new, fresh light on works that viewers thought they already knew. One particular surprise, for me, was the inclusion of John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822), which is the final painting, to be seen when one leaves the exhibition. I will readily confess that I did not know this work. Martin’s work has only quite recently been revalued: while
his sublime historical tableaux were very popular in the early nineteenth
century, his work was considered too dramatic and excessive for Victorian
tastes. But it was not the innate qualities of this painting that struck me;
nor was I reminded of the nineteenth-century preoccupation with antiquity,
which is one of my own research interests. The first thing that came to mind – my mind, at least – was the album cover of ‘Sweet Apocalypse’, a beautiful
collection of haunting melodies by the contemporary German pianist Lambert, who always performs while wearing a Sardinian mask. This album’s cover is a painting by Mioke and shows the musician walking with a child towards an eruption of light, whose source remains unknown (but given the album’s title, it appears most sinister). 


The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum 


Albumcover Sweet Apocalypse

There is of course a striking difference: whereas in Martin’s painting the citizens of Pompeii attempt to flee the apocalypse behind them, in
Mioke’s painting two individuals calmly walk towards it. (Incidentally, Mioke’s creation of the painting can be reviewed here). At the end of this wonderful exhibition in the musée du Luxembourg, then, with the crème-de-la-crème of British painting behind me, I saw an artwork by a (for me) unknown artist, which made me think of the painting of the cover of an album by a pianist who performs anonymously, but whose music thus, paradoxically, is reaching an ever-growing audience. Whether Lambert and Mioke are consciously referring to Martin’s painting, I cannot say; intertextuality may work in mysterious ways, as theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes have shown. What I can say, is that in our times anonymity may be a better guarantee for creating
forms of imaginative engagement.

A very reverent Alice

Written by Anna P. H. Geurts

Alice in Wonderland is one of the most variedly illustrated stories ever, and yet artists over the past 150 years have limited themselves in strange ways when re-imagining this classic. Last year, I made a call for African, African American, or otherwise non-European-looking Alices in Wonderland
on my blog. Several reached me, including two Australian editions, Whoopi Goldberg’s urban retelling, and the 2018 Pirelli calendar.

Now, designer Marlon McKenney has published Alice in Wonderland: Re-Mixed.

The book is a drastically shortened, retold version of the classic story, richly illustrated with digital images. These illustrations do an excellent job at normalising the depiction of brown-skinned people in picture books: exactly as I wished for when I made my call last year.

The book also includes some nice finds in the genre (yes!) of Alice art: there is a water-clock tea set; the Cheshire Cat practices voodoo; the White Rabbit is a DJ carrying a bling-bling watch; the game of croquet has been turned into a singing contest; and the Queen of Hearts’s children have been turned into – white – security guards, carrying guns, batons and tasers: ominous, but no less ominous than Carroll’s original.

The special aim of this publication is to bring African American children in touch with African American heritage.* The book thus aims to help consolidate a canon of art works and ideas created by people with African roots. Or, as it seems in some parts of the book, the aim may even be to create a canon of non-whites from across the entire world.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in a book with a didactic tone and little humour. During Alice’s long fall down, for instance,

‘She saw mystical books, ancient symbols, and pictures of important historical women. Alice was dazed and confused by the images circulating through her mind, yet somehow, they felt vaguely familiar. She’d have to remember to ask her sister about them.’ [bolds in the original]


At the end of the story, ‘everyone from Wonderland finally decided to stand up to the Queen and stop her from hurting anyone else anymore.’ And after Alice’s return above ground, she says to her sister: ‘I’m just glad to be back where things are really what they seem[.]’ What chafes most in this
respect, is that Lewis Carroll’s intentions and methods – to entertain children with nonsensical conversation – have been lost. And perhaps this is inevitable. The makers of the book clearly thought: what better way to
strengthen a new canon than to attach it to an existing canonic work?

But in many ways, the original Alice is an anti-canonic work. Irreverence, critique and irony are at its very heart: Shakespeare is reduced to a textbook portrait of a man with a finger pressed against his forehead; the Battle of Hastings, focal point in the British self-image, is the driest story a crowd of animals can come up with; there are the ineffectual King and Queen of Hearts; haughty Humpty Dumpty falls off his wall; and afternoon tea is a never-ending affair. Every bit of British canonicity is ridiculed.

To create a similar, humorous critique of African American figureheads might, Marlon McKenney may have deliberated, undermine the purpose of his book, which was to offer its readers a first introduction to these people and make it unambiguously clear that they are our heroes. In a typical sentence therefore, Alice’s sister Kenya ‘was reading aloud from one of her favorite books by the great poet Maya Angelou.’

On the other hand, the Re-Mixed retelling also offers a refreshing take on the idea of a canon by mixing up what in books is usually demarcated as two separate realms: that of low culture and of high culture – of street art and salon art: Tweedledee and Tweedledum figure as two breakdancers on cardboard, next to the novels of Maya Angelou; vodou stands next to the high politics of Nelson Mandela.

Refreshing, but also a little risky. Because by following this tactic, and by including icons from across the history of the world, ranging from the Bhagavad Gita, via shamans, Frida Kahlo, and a southern-Asian caterpillar, to Queen Nefertari, all in a text of only a few thousand words, McKenney runs the danger of creating the impression that African American history offers little material that is worthy of a cultural canon. It is as if he only had a few people and works of art to choose from. Granted, every canon-building endeavour has to start somewhere. But by limiting himself to, for instance, twentieth-century North America, the author would have made a much stronger case for the global significance and influence of African American culture.

And perhaps the best service McKenney could indeed have done his heroes, would have been to treat them with a little less reverence. (Okay, apart from Maya Angelou. But Haile Selassie?) Because: once we can laugh with our cultural icons, we know that they have undeniably made it to the canon.

 A digital copy of the book is available for free from Conscious Culture Publishing.

 * This is my interpretation of the publisher’s blurb, which reads:

‘CCP is an independent publishing company committed to creating a platform for diverse content that push the boundaries of traditional storytelling. Through the creation of narratives that are a reflection of the people both creating and experiencing these stories, we empower young readers to reach their fullest potential while embracing their history and culture.

Our stories are a reflection of the global community and we believe it is important that young people of color not only see themselves reflected in stories but also have a platform to provide their own authentic voice, culture, and experience. Storytelling is an extraordinary way to educate and empower young readers and show them that they are limitless.’

Scenes uit het Antropoceen: Andrej Tarkovski

Door Jeroen Boom


Stalker (Andrej Tarkovski, 1979)

Één van cinema’s vele scheppingsmythen wijst op de vertoning van Louis Lumière’s Le Repas de Bébé (1895), een korte film waarin niets meer te zien is dan hoe een baby gevoed wordt in een zonovergoten tuin. Ook al portretteerde de film slechts een futiel alledaags ritueel, haar bezoekers waren verbijsterd door het nieuwe medium. Het meest fascinerende en raadselachtige aspect van het fragment, zo beschreef film theoreticus Siegfried Kracauer in The Theory of Film, was niet de familie die zich op de voorgrond verzamelde, maar de poëzie van de wind die de bladeren in de bomen deed dansen in de achtergrond.

Wie deze cine-ecologische genealogie verder volgt, komt ongetwijfeld snel uit bij de Russische filmmaker Andrej Tarkovski, wiens cinema van stil kabbelend water en diepzwarte aarde vele regisseurs na hem — onder andere Denis Villeneuve, Lars von Trier en Michael Haneke — heeft begeesterd. “De ultieme Tarkovskiaanse spirituele ervaring,” zo schrijft filosoof Slavoj Žižek in The Thing from Inner Space, “doet zich voor wanneer een karakter ligt uitgestrekt op het aardoppervlak, half ondergedompeld in gortig water”. Tarkovski kijkt niet omhoog naar de hemel om het spirituele en het transcendente te vinden, maar naar beneden; naar de modder, de smurrie, en de fijne stofdeeltjes die zweven boven het aardoppervlak: zijn cinema is er een van rauwe materie, van down-to-earth immanentie.

Tarkovski’s werelden zijn vochtig en drassig, vaak verwoest en vervallen, bedekt door een deken van mist. Als nomaden zwerven zijn karakters door zulke gebieden, nooit goed wetend waar de reis naar toe gaat of waar zij zullen eindigen, altijd onderweg naar het onbekende. Voor wie zich waagt aan het werk van Gilles Deleuze en Félix Guattari weet dat de “nomade”, zowel als denkfiguur en metafoor, haaks staat op het klassieke denken over de mens en haar plaats in de wereld. Zij is niet, zoals vaak gesuggereerd, onveranderlijk thuis in het centrum van het universum, maar voortdurend in wording, voortdurend in transformatie. Ontheemd deint zij mee op de golven van het zijn, schommelend en beweeglijk, in een dynamisch
proces van worden. De mens is, net zoals de personages in Tarkovski’s
films, eeuwig onderweg.

Het is dit beeld van het rondreizende individu in een wereld van afval en aftakeling dat richting kan bieden in ons denken over het Antropoceen, het tijdperk waarin de uitzonderlijke en collectieve invloed van de mens op mondiale en catastrofale schaal zichtbaar wordt.

In Stalker (1979), een film gemaakt tijdens grote nucleaire dreiging, situeert Tarkovski de mens-als-nomade het meest expliciet in haar materiële en vervuilde omgeving. In de film banen een schrijver en een professor zich een weg door het verboden en haast ondoordringbare landschap van ‘de zone’. Zij worden begeleid door de stalker, een figuur die zijn leven op het spel zet — tegen betaling uiteraard — om de twee nieuwsgierigen rond te leiden door het verontreinigde gebied. De drie karakters dwalen door de zone in de hoop het gebied te doorgronden, maar stuiten enkel op nog meer raadsels. Ook voor de kijker is de zone gehuld in mysterie, zo weet zij niet hoe en wanneer deze giftige plek ontstaan is of hoe lang deze nog zal bestaan. Het is al te laat om de zorgelijke ontwikkelingen in de zone te stoppen, maar te vroeg om met enige helderheid de situatie te begrijpen. Het is door deze ambiguïteit en ongrijpbaarheid dat Tarkovski’s zone
uitnodigt om te denken over het Antropoceen als een esthetisch probleem: hoe kunnen de kunsten een tragedie vatten die zowel onmenselijk rampzalig als grotendeels vormloos is, onontkomelijk aanwezig maar niet onmiddellijk zichtbaar?

Halverwege de film, wanneer de drie mannen hun rust vinden op een drassig stuk grond, lijkt de film een antwoord te formuleren op deze vraag. Nadat de stalker zijn ogen heeft gesloten, snijdt de film naar een ‘overhead
shot’ van de rivier die tussen hen in stroomt. De camera glijdt vanaf een paar centimeter langzaam over het wateroppervlak. Eerst bewegen we over het slapende gezicht van de stalker, waarna we een aantal willekeurige
objecten tegenkomen, roestig en half begraven in de zanderige rivierbedding. Veel van deze troep is niet meer thuis te brengen, te aangetast door het verontreinigde water, maar een aantal menselijke relikwieën, zoals munten, foto’s, spiegels, en spuiten, zijn nog te herkennen. Ondertussen horen we in een voice-over hoe de vrouw van de stalker een passage voordraagt uit de Openbaring van Johannes, waardoor de onorthodoxe camerabeweging een merkwaardig apocalyptische connotatie krijgt.

Tarkovski’s focus op de wederzijdse verwikkeling van menselijke en niet-menselijke materie herinnert ons aan het gegeven dat onze natuurlijke omgeving meer is dan de passieve achtergrond van ons bestaan, niet enkel gereserveerd voor het anthropos. Mens en natuur, zo lijkt hij te suggereren, zijn deel van een gemeenschappelijk milieu en relationele ecologie, gemaakt van eenzelfde materie en in eenzelfde staat van ontbinding. Het is een opvallend lange scene zonder narratieve context, waarin een langzaam proces van verval en sedimentatie zich voor onze ogen lijkt te voltrekken. Het is het soort traagheid dat Tarkovski leent van de door hem bewonderde Michelangelo Antonioni, wiens films gekenmerkt worden door geruïneerde landschappen en loze tijd. Deze lege tijd, beroofd van enige narratieve significantie of menselijke actie, zorgt ervoor dat karakters en hun
omgevingen gelijkgesteld worden aan elkaar. Voor even staat niets in dienst van het plot. Wat overblijft, zoals ook Žižek beschrijft, is enkel de fysieke impact van materiële texturen.

Naast shots waarin de camera nomadisch over aardse oppervlakten beweegt, decentreert Tarkovski zijn personages ook op andere wijzen. De eerste minuten van Solaris (1972), bijvoorbeeld, worden gekenmerkt door lange close-ups van bewegend riet en zeewier, waarna de camera langzaam het hoofdpersonage introduceert. We zien psycholoog en kosmonaut Kris Kelvin, wiens blauwe jas haast wegvalt in de nevelige achtergrond. Het is een techniek die Tarkovski inzet om zijn personages expliciet te laten versmelten met de natuurlijke landschappen in zijn composities, waarbij de oppositie tussen voorgrond en achtergrond verdwijnt.


Still uit Solaris (Tarkvoski, 1972)


Still uit Stalker (Tarkovski, 1979)


Still uit Andrei Rublev (Tarkovski, 1966)

Op verschillende manieren lijkt Tarkovski de aandacht te vestigen op de aarde als een vitaal en gedeeld milieu, als een monistisch geheel dat van strikte hiërarchieën is ontdaan. Zoals Karen Barad schrijft in haar artikel ‘Posthumanist Performativity,’ “de mens is niet simpel gelokaliseerd ergens in de wereld, maar maakt deel uit van de wereld in haar voortdurende intra-activiteit”. Als zijn karakters zwijgen, laat Tarkovski hun natuurlijke omgeving spreken. Als we bereid zijn te luisteren, horen we het stromen van water en de wind in de bladeren.

Tarkovski’s oeuvre is dit najaar te bewonderen in verschillende filmhuizen en bioscopen door Nederland. De tentoonstelling ‘Andrei Tarkovsky – The Exhibition’ is nog tot 6 december 2019 te zien in Eye Filmmuseum Amsterdam.

Long Live the Wolf!

Written by Elisa Fiore

TRIGGER WARNING: The first part of this post refers to war


View on the Monte Sole Historical Park, Bologna – © E.Fiore, December

I started writing this blog post on the 29th of September 2019, the 75th anniversary of the massacre of Monte Sole – also known as the Massacre of Marzabotto – on the Apennine mountains south of Bologna. The massacre went down in history as the largest and most heinous massacre of civilians carried out by Nazi and Fascist troops during the war, and the deadliest mass shooting in the history of Italy. At least 775 people were killed in this six-day reprisal, mostly children, women, and the elderly. Towards the end of WWII (1943-45), the area of Monte Sole was traversed by the so-called Gothic Line, the last major fortified defensive line of the German army, which ran for 300km from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic coast following the rugged contours of the Apennine reliefs. The Gothic Line was one of the main theatres of the Italian Liberation War, with the Partisan Movement
engaging in systematic attacks and sabotage against the retreating German
forces and their Fascist allies.

The Monte Sole area was the territory of the partisan brigade Stella Rossa (Red Star), which was founded in September 1943 after the Armistice of Cassabile. Stella Rossa was deeply rooted in the territory and the civilian population was on the whole very favourable to their activities, which they supported by providing clothes, food, hiding places, and possibly shelter in barns and stables. The brigade was led by Mario Musolesi aka “il Lupo” – the wolf – a very respected 29-year-old former-mechanic, whose fame and reputation contributed to the growing success of the Resistance Movement in Monte Sole – the acknowledged partisans acting in the brigade were 1.538 (City of Bologna). In the summer of 1944, Stella Rossa pulled off several successful attacks against the retreating German army, blowing up train lines and roadways, but also resisting for months all German attempts to break into the Monte Sole territory. It is precisely as a reprisal to these attacks that the massacre was organised.

On the 29th of September 1944, SS-Sturmbannführer Walther Reder led the
XVI Panzer Grenadier Division “Reich Führer SS” into Monte Sole armed with
heavy artillery and started raiding schools, farmsteads, churches, and houses with a scorched earth approach. No one was spared. In 1945, Reder was captured by the British Army in Austria. He was tried in 1951 by the Bologna Military Court, who sentenced him to life imprisonment for war crimes.

Today, Monte Sole has been turned into a historical park stretching over 6.300 hectares, whose ‘primary objective, along with the conservation and valorisation of the environmental heritage, is to promote a culture of peace aimed to future generations’ (Scuola di Pace Monte Sole). Inside the park, the Memorial Trail leads visitors through the symbolic places of the 1944 massacre, and each 25th of April – the Italian Liberation Day – thousands of people gather here from Bologna and the surrounding areas to walk the Memorial Trail together to the sound of the marching bands playing Resistance songs.


Stella Rossa commemorative stone – © E.Fiore and L.Di Maio, 25th of April

At the summit of the Memorial Trail, there is a commemorative stone that was placed there in 1953 as a memorial to the hundreds of victims of the massacre. The stone is topped by a red star, an explicit dedication to the local partisan brigade, and at the bottom of the inscription a red seemingly-hand-written carving that says “W il Lupo”, in honour of the
brigade leader who also died during the massacre. Every 25th of April, people gather around the commemorative stone, singing “Bella Ciao!” at
the top of their lungs, and thus honouring the memory of all those who died to oppose Nazi-Fascism. Being there on such occasion literally moved me to tears.

Why am I telling you all this?, you might be wondering. Let’s just say that this issue – that of Anti-Fascism – has been occupying my mind for the last couple of weeks at least. On the 18th of September 2019, the European Parliament issued the joint resolution 2019/2819(RSP) titled “On the Importance of European Remembrance for the Future of Europe” –
which can be read in full here: Backed by the S&D (centre
left), Renew (liberal), EPP (Christian-Democrat), and ECR (conservative)
groups, this motion wants to be a condemnation of all “totalitarianism” and
identifies the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 as the starting point of WWII. In this resolution, the European Parliament condemns communism as equivalent to Nazism. In their words, ‘The European Parliament [… r]ecalls that the Nazi and communist regimes carried out mass murders, genocide and deportations and caused a loss of life and freedom
in the 20th century on a scale unseen in human history, and recalls
the horrific crime of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi regime; condemns in the strongest terms the acts of aggression, crimes against humanity and mass human rights violations perpetrated by the Nazi, communist and other totalitarian regimes
’. The Parliament also writes that they condemn ‘all manifestations and propagation of totalitarian ideologies, such as Nazism and Stalinism, in the EU’, and call for ‘a common culture of remembrance that rejects the crimes of fascist, Stalinist, and other totalitarian and authoritarian regimes of the past as a way of fostering resilience against modern threats to democracy, particularly among the younger generation’.

As easily imaginable, this resolution has split the political world, and the political left in particular. While the (far-)right exults, many leftist politicians and commentators are outraged by the document. As they argue, equating Nazism and communism implies presenting communism as fundamentally genocidal. British historian David Broder (2019) points out
that, by constantly confusing the political and the ideological planes (Stalinism vs communism), ‘the European Parliament condemns not only Stalinist atrocities, but the entire experience of state socialism — and even the communists who opposed Stalin — as equivalent to the Nazis and their death camps’. Moreover, the resolution has been judged as a historical false, in that it reduces WWII to a Nazi-Soviet division of Europe, turns a blind eye to the responsibilities of all European liberal democracies in the outbreak of the war, and erases the fact that Russia was at once one of the main victims of the conflict with 27 million casualties and one of the main actors in fighting Nazism. Italian commentators in particular have pointed out that, by equating Communism with Nazism, the European Parliament has legitimised the already widespread “reversist” (D’Orgi 2019) arguments used by the (far-)right, which equate the Italian Resistance Movement – often inspired by communist and socialist values and ideals – to the Fascist regime they strenuously opposed. According to these commentators, the resolution is a gift horse to the (far-)right in Italy and elsewhere – the same far-right that the European Parliament intends to counter with this very resolution.

I am not fully qualified to judge the validity of the above critiques. But I have to admit that there are a couple other passages in this motion that I find extremely worrying. A little later in the document, the Parliament ‘[e]xpresses concern at the continued use of symbols of totalitarian regimes in the public sphere and for commercial purposes, and recalls that a number of European countries have banned the use of both Nazi and communist symbols’. They also note ‘the continued existence in public spaces in some Member States of monuments and memorials (parks, squares, streets etc.) glorifying totalitarian regimes, which paves the way for the distortion of historical facts about the consequences of the Second World War and for the propagation of the totalitarian political system’. For this reason, the Parliament ‘[u]rges the Member States […] to counter organisations that spread hate speech and violence in public spaces and online’. By once again validating the common misconception that conflates communism with Stalinism, the European Parliament appears to open the door for the criminalisation of all communist symbols (even the pop-culture ones) and organisations, and de facto urges Member State to eliminate them.

At the moment, the resolution is not binding for Member States. But let’s imagine for a moment it was. What consequences would it have? Would many of the symbols, monuments, and memorials commemorating the victims of Nazi-Fascism or the Anti-Fascist Resistance disappear? Would for example the Soviet War Memorial in Großer Tiergarten in Berlin, dedicated to Russian victims of WWII, have to be torn down? Would all street names dedicated to communist figures like Rosa Luxemburg or Antonio Gramsci, to name but two, need to be named after “more neutral” or “less controversial” figures? And what about all the plaques and memorials dedicated to the partisans who died in the Resistance, would they also need to go? What would happen, for example, to those workers unions that have served for many workers as spaces of self-awareness and resistance against capitalist exploitation? And the t-shirts with the face of Che Guevara, or the hats with a red star, would they be withdrawn from the market? And the people who wear them, would they be fined or arrested? Would the yearly 25th of April gathering in Monte Sole be eliminated?
And would we still be allowed to sing Bella Ciao?

For the time being, these are just some provocations. But what if we really were to wake up in a world where Anti-Fascism is a crime and the Nazi Holocaust just another evil among many rather the lowest point in European 20th century history? As Hannah Arendt (1963) wrote, ‘[c]ertainly fascism has already been defeated once, but we are far from having definitively eradicated this supreme evil of our time’.

Therefore, W la Resistenza e  W il lupo!


To know more:

For those who want to know more about Monte Sole, I recommend that they watch the film The Man who will Come, by Italian director Giorgio Diritti (2009). It was awarded several David di Donatello Awards (for Best Film, Best Producer, and Best Sound) and many other film awards. In its original version, the film is in Bolognese dialect with Italian subtitles, a unique occurrence in Italian cinematography. Here is the trailer:

Here is also a nice video on the Monte Sole Historical Park made by Lab051:



Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Broder, David. 2019. The End of Anti-Fascism. Jacobin

Cararo, Sergio. 2019. L’anticomunismo diventa regola delle istituzioni europee. Contropiano

Conti, Davide. 2019. La storia stravolta a propaganda dal parlamento europeo. Il Manifesto

Corsetti, Carla. 2019. Stalin come Hitler e Mussolini? A chi giova la risoluzione UE che equipara il comunismo al nazifascismo. Left –

D’Orsi, Angelo. 2019. Comunismo come nazismo? Un mostro storico e una bestialità politica MicroMega

European Parliament. 2019. European Parliament resolution on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe.

Maringiò, Francesco. 2019. European Parliament adopts resolution assimilating Communism to Nazism. Global Research

Milne, Seuma. 2019. The rewriting of history is spreading Europe’s poison. The Guardian –

Storia e Memoria di Bologna, website –

Feminisme en mode: van suffragette tot genderbender

Door Anneke Smelik


Weg met het korset
De viering van honderd jaar vrouwenkiesrecht roept de vraag op wat feminisme met mode heeft te maken. Als we foto’s bekijken van suffragettes uit de eerste feministische golf, aan het einde van de negentiende eeuw, dan zien we strijdbare vrouwen in chique gewaden: lange rokken, geborduurde japonnen, en opgestoken haar onder hoeden
met veren. Deze deftige dames streden voor het recht om te stemmen, maar wilden ook andere belangrijke doelen bereiken zoals toegang tot de universiteit, betaald werk en geboortebeperking.

Verrassend genoeg richtte de vrouwenemancipatie zich ook op een alledaags onderwerp als kleding: ze verlangden gezonde kleding voor vrouwen! Weg met het korset, riepen de feministen. Het korset drukt de buik in en bolt de borsten op, zodat de lijnen van het vrouwelijk lichaam figuur benadrukt worden. Sexy misschien, zoals je nu kan zien in shows
van Dita Von Teese of Madonna. Maar als je zoals in vorige eeuwen dagelijks
strak ingesnoerd bent in een korset, kan je buikpijn krijgen of moeite met
ademhalen. Niet voor niets vielen vrouwen rond de vorige eeuwwisseling zo vaak flauw: ze kregen gewoon niet genoeg adem door het strakke korset. In historische kostuumfilms is vaak een scène te zien waarin de vrouwelijke hoofdpersoon stijf in het korset wordt geregen als symbool voor de onderdrukte positie waarin zij zit; bijvoorbeeld Rose (Kate Winslet) in Titanic (1997). Voorvechters van vrouwenemancipatie vonden het korset dan ook een slechte zaak en pleitten voor soepele kleding om vrouwen letterlijk meer bewegingsvrijheid te geven.


Kom maar op met die broek
Aan het begin van de twintigste eeuw wordt vrouwenkleding in rap tempo moderner: het korset verdwijnt, de rokken en de mouwen worden korter, het silhouet wordt rechter en de lijnen simpeler. Vrouwenemancipatie speelt hierin een belangrijke rol: als vrouwen de arbeidsmarkt gaan betreden en de tram of trein willen halen, dan zijn lange en volle rokken bijzonder onhandig en zelfs gevaarlijk. Modeontwerpster Coco Chanel maakt korte metten met het korset, het voluptueuze silhouet en de
tierlantijnen van welgestelde dameskleding. Zij kleedt vrouwen in een simpele rechte rok tot op de knie en een recht jasje van soepele stoffen, zoals jersey, wat oorspronkelijk een stof is voor mannenondergoed. Ze introduceert zelfs de broek voor vrouwen. En dat is revolutionair!

Het is voor ons nauwelijks te bevatten, maar het was voor vrouwen bij wet verboden om broeken te dragen. Aan het einde van de negentiende eeuw trekken enkele vrouwen voor het eerst een broek aan—en prompt worden ze gearresteerd. Broek-dragende vrouwen overtreden immers de openbare orde of Gods orde. In de jaren twintig van de vorige eeuw begint, heel langzaam, de pantalon voor vrouwen op te komen. Beroemde actrices zoals Marlene Dietrich of Greta Garbo zijn afgebeeld in pantalon en zelfs in mannenpak. Maar pas in de jaren zestig breekt de damesbroek definitief door; nog maar vijftig jaar geleden. De modeontwerper Yves St. Laurent schrijft in 1966 geschiedenis met zijn smoking voor vrouwen. En dan gaat het snel. Door de hippiebeweging vervagen de grenzen tussen mannen en
vrouwen: jongens dragen lang haar en meisjes dragen jeans. In de jaren tachtig verschijnt de carrièrevrouw in mannenpak: een colbert met volle schouders, soms met broek, soms met een rok. Het wordt ook wel ‘power dressing’ genoemd; bijvoorbeeld Diane Keaton in de film Annie Hall (1977) of Grace Jones met haar vierkante schouders en dito kapsel (b.v. het album Nightclubbing, 1981).

Een rok voor mannen: een brug te ver?
Feminisme gaat dus niet alleen over kiesrecht, arbeid, of het slikken van de Pil, maar ook over het soort kleding dat we dragen. De broek werd al genoemd, maar er was in de jaren zestig ook strijd over sexy kleding, zoals de komst van de bikini of de minirok, en over het korte kapsel. Telkens weer moesten vrouwen hun vrijheid bevechten. En dat is gelukt: vandaag de dag zijn we heel vrij in de keuze van onze looks.

Toch is hier nog iets interessant aan de hand: want vrouwen mogen dan broeken dragen, maar mannen dragen zelden rokken of jurken. En al helemaal niet in de politiek! Zie je het al voor je: Mark Rutte (of Trump!) in een rok? Nee dus. Ze zijn er wel, rokkendragende mannen, maar alleen op de catwalk, in ontwerpen van Marc Jacobs, Jean-Paul Gaultier, of J.W. Anderson.

Aan de hand van gendertheorie kunnen we uitleggen dat het verschil in kleding tussen mannen en vrouwen in feite een machtsverschil is. Een sociale groep zal zich altijd aanpassen aan de dominante norm en daarmee aan macht en status winnen. Als de achtergestelde sociale groep van vrouwen zich aanpast aan de heersende norm van mannen, trekken vrouwen mannelijke kleding aan, zoals de pantalon of het colbert. Zo verkrijgen ze meer macht en status. Daarom zie je dat vrouwen aan de top, zoals in de politiek, zo vaak een broekpak dragen: ze passen zich aan de mannelijke norm aan. Als de dominante groep, de mannen, kleding overneemt van de maatschappelijk achtergestelde groep, de vrouwen, dan verliest die groep aan macht en status. Daarom vinden we een man in een rok of jurk raar of belachelijk. Hetzelfde geldt voor felle kleuren. Een man in een knalrood colbertpak nemen we minder serieus, want kleuren zijn vrouwelijk in de westerse cultuur van vandaag. Vandaar dat Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton en menig andere vrouwelijke politicus met een felle kleurkeuze toch nog een vrouwelijk accent geven aan hun mannelijke colbert of broek.

Bij dit soort machtsverschillen is het altijd aardig om je de situatie omgekeerd voor te stellen. Bekijk bijvoorbeeld de fotoserie van Gigi Hadid en Zayn Malik voor de Vogue van augustus 2017, waarin ze onder andere in hetzelfde bruine Pradapak poseren. Dat accepteren we: Gigi kan ‘ongestraft’ mannenkleding aantrekken. Zayn en Gigi bepleiten ‘gender fluidity’ in hun kleding, waarmee ze aangeven met vrouwelijkheid en mannelijkheid te willen spelen. Inderdaad draagt Zayn kleding in felle kleuren, met bloemenpatronen en zelfs met kant, maar een rok of jurk draagt hij niet. Natuurlijk is in de populaire cultuur meer vrijheid dan in de wereld van de politiek: een model, zanger, acteur of danser kan nog ’ns spelen met zijn kleding, maar een mannelijke politicus in een rok, jurk of zelfs maar
een rood, geel of paars colbertpak—dat is echt een brug te ver.


Vanaf de jaren zestig is er ook een andere ontwikkeling gaande, want mannen- en vrouwenkleding komt dichter bij elkaar ondanks de nog bestaande verschillen. Androgynie is een ideaal dat steeds opnieuw terugkeert. In de jaren zestig en zeventig heette dat ‘uniseks’ kleding. In de jaren tachtig vierden de vrolijke ‘gender benders’ in de popmuziek hoogtij: David Bowie, Prince, Michael Jackson, Boy George, en onder de vrouwen Madonna, Grace Jones en Annie Lennox. Ook de laatste jaren is er in de mode weer volop aandacht voor ‘gender fluidity’; een meer flexibele grens
tussen de seksen in plaats van een harde scheidslijn. Dit zagen we al bij Gigi en Zayn. Al eerder poseerde het Australische model Andrej Pejić als (toen nog) man voor dameskleding van de HEMA, en was de Nederlandse Saskia de Brauw het model in een mannencampagne voor Yves Saint Laurent (2013). En de Nederlandse eeneiige tweeling, de zussen Lisa en Anna Bosveld, willen zich aan genderhokjes onttrekken. Op het gebied van kleding (laat staan make-up!) is de vrijheid voor mannen veel kleiner dan voor vrouwen. Voor mannen valt er dus nog een wereld te winnen wat kleding betreft. Kom maar op met die kleurige bloemenpatronen in fluweel, brokaat, of kant in mannenkleding. En wie weet: zelfs een zwierige rok of jurk voor de heren?

Van het korset zijn we al ruim een eeuw af; de broek mogen vrouwen al meer dan een halve eeuw aan; nu kunnen we er in het nieuwe millennium met elkaar een ‘genderbende’ van maken!

Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

Written by Roel Smeets

4:30 AM. While my 5-month-old daughter is still asleep, I go downstairs to do my daily meditation and yoga practice before she wakes up. Since three years or so, I practice Ashtanga Yoga, a dynamic sequence of postures characterized by a synchronization of breath and movement. This style of yoga originates from the Indian southwestern city Mysore, where Sri K. Patthabhi Jois (1915-2009) founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948. In Ashtanga Yoga, ‘Mysore’ refers to the way it was originally taught by Patthabi Jois. Whereas most yoga nowadays is taught collectively in led-classes with teachers indicating the pace, Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga is practised individually and taught one-on-one within a group setting.

When I first set foot in a Mysore room early one morning, I was struck by the electricity in the air. People breathing like Darth Vader (called ‘ujjayi
breath’). Sweat dripping from strong, supple bodies. Energetic, flowing
movements. Initially, I was primarily drawn to the physical aspects of the
practice. I felt that there was something poetic about folding your body into a variety of geometrical shapes. As I continued to practice, my interest in
yoga’s cultural roots grew. Obviously, I knew that yoga was more than just a
physical workout, but the exact nature and history of this spiritual tradition
were largely unknown to me. I started reading some of the classical yoga texts, such as the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali (400 CE), and delved into yoga
scholarship. I learned the Sanskrit words of the Ashtanga Yoga chants by heart. Meditation gradually became a more important part of my practice. But as I emerged myself into the history and customs of this tradition, a feeling of unease started to grow upon me.

This is why. Modern yoga as practised in the West is an obvious example of cultural appropriation, in the sense that elements from a minority culture are adopted by the dominant culture and transformed into something differently. The rationale is this:

– Yoga is a spiritual tradition originating from India

– People from India are minorities in Western countries, and
India has a history of colonization by Westerners

– Yoga is practised on a large scale in the West and has
become a billion dollar industry

– In the West, the term ‘yoga’ now denotes something that is
different from its original meaning and uses

To be clear, I am definitely not the first to point this out. Especially in light
of India’s colonial history, it is striking to see that this spiritual tradition is now subject to modern forms of colonization and appropriation. It is thus not strange that India has uttered the wish to reclaim yoga.

Still, practising yoga as a Westerner, or as someone who does not have Indian roots, does not necessarily make you a bad person. As most cultural phenomena, yoga is not a stable, fixed practice, it is in constant flux and has witnessed many transformations over the centuries – arguably, the recent Westernization of yoga is just one of those changes. However, I think that yoga practitioners do have a moral obligation to be aware of the the way yoga has changed as a result of its appropriation by Westerners. To help raise such awareness, I will outline one of yoga’s transformations that took place during its rise in the West.

Most people nowadays associate yoga with physical postures on a mat. This association is, however, something fairly recent. As scholars James Mallinson and Mark Singleton describe in Roots of yoga (2017), most ancient writings on yoga instruct students in a multifaceted system of which physical postures is just one of several ‘limbs’. These range from fourfold to fifteenfold systems. Ashtanga Yoga, for instance, is based on an eightfold system as described in one of the most well known yoga texts, the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali (400 CE). The first two limbs – niyama  and yama
relate to behaviour towards oneself and others, such as discipline (tapas) and non-violence (ahimsa). These limbs bear similarities to the moral codes prescribed in various religious strands, such as the Christian ten commandments. Postures (asana) is the only limb referring to the physical postures that most people associate yoga with today. Interestingly, the Yoga Sūtras do not contain any instructions about how to do a headstand or to how put your leg behind your head, asana simply refers to a ‘steady and
comfortable’ seated position. This seated position is perfect for working on
the other limbs such as breath-control (pranayama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), focus (dharana), and meditation (dhyana). Finally, the goal of all of this is to reach a state of samadhi, commonly defined as union, absorption, or enlightenment.


Physical postures are just one element of yoga. Although later yoga texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1500 CE) describe more complex postures than just the seated position described in the Yoga Sūtras, it is clear that the focus on the physical aspect of yoga only came into being in the twentieth century. In most Western countries, yoga today seems to  exclusively refer to asana, and is commonly considered as just one of many physical workout routines, which is exemplified by the fact that fitness studios and sport centres often provide yoga classes (also at Radboud Sports Centre). The clearest example of modern-day Western yoga’s
prioritization of the physical aspect is the existence of yoga championships, where ‘yoga athletes’ are judged merely on the physical appearance of the postures.

The physical aspect of yoga drew me to the practice in the first place, and this is probably also what attracts other (Western) practitioners to it. I primarily saw it as workout, used it to train my body, and it gradually replaced my long distance runs and fitness sessions. Was I doing yoga, or was I just doing some stretching exercises? Probably the latter. But although I was not fully aware of the importance of the other limbs of yoga, breath-control (pranayama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), focus  (dharana), and meditation (dhyana) started to become equally important aspects of my daily practice. Do I now have the right to say that I am doing yoga? I am not sure. There is a huge gray area between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Who draws the line, and where should the line be drawn?