Surrender upon demand | US experience part one

After about two weeks in the United States, there is to much too keep in. Writing seems the only sane response to the variety of experiences that cannot be but leave an impression.

After about two weeks in the United States, there is too much to keep in. Writing seems the only sane response to the variety of experiences that cannot be but leave an impression.
I could start with the initial wonder, those couple of days walking around in a haze, the filmset that was movie around me, that I didn’t want to touch anything so that it would not become too real. The steam coming out of put holes in the streets of New York. People walking like they have nowhere to be except right there, in that walk, walking the walk, as stand-ins, always ready for something to happen. The woman in the metrostation randomly starting to talk to me about her life. The people asking me if I have a problem with black men. The New York skyline from a rooftop in Astoria, and it not sparkling me as it should.
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Do we actually want ‘freedom of speech’? Or: reading Spinoza

Watching the news, reading social media contributions, I more and more come to the conclusion that it might be time to end our persistent liking of this concept, the ideal of freedom of speech. In a world where opinions create problems, perhaps it is time to stop having opinions altogether.

Especially when having an opinion is seen as ‘doing something’, as ‘contributing something’ to society. Thus, the main problem I have with the ‘freedom of opinion’ is that is seems to warrant a liberty through which people feel entitled to say whatever they want, even if it hurts, even if it confirms prejudice and ignorance.

When we take into account that we are mostly limited in our thinking by the world in which we find ourselves, then we must conclude that our opinions can only be a confirmation of who we already are, of what we already know.


Continue reading “Do we actually want ‘freedom of speech’? Or: reading Spinoza”

I am that other

(I wonder…
… is there a limit to what can happen before we revolt
(and we continue to blame refugees)
… can truth only be mentioned in irony
(and we continue to vote out of fear for the unknown)
… who is this grand hero that ends this dark fairy tale called reality
(and we continue to put our faith in financial institutions that profit from loss)
… what can I do that does not add to suffering and misery
(and we continue to distinguish between them and us)
…) Continue reading “I am that other”

How to respond to the horror of #Paris?

It is still too early to know exactly what happened, who what where and perhaps the most important question: why? What is clear is that something terrible has happened. Response from all over the world is pouring in, and besides the initiatives where the people from Paris open their doors for stranded fellow-Parisians to find a shelter for the night, there are also possible violent reactions. Which is what this event is also the beginning or continuation of, fear of violence and revenge. Which response is appropriate now?

It is still too early to know exactly what happened, who what where and perhaps the most important question: why? What is clear is that something terrible has happened. Response from all over the world is pouring in, and besides the initiatives where the people from Paris open their doors for stranded fellow-Parisians to find a shelter for the night, there are also possible violent reactions. Which is what this event is also the beginning or continuation of, fear of violence and revenge. Which response is appropriate now? A reflection by Nicole des Bouvrie. First published on (in Dutch).
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Column: Ode aan de taal – en Drs. P

Afgelopen zaterdag overleed op 95-jarige leeftijd een van de grootste woordkunstenaars van het Nederlandse taalgebied. Drs. P stond voornamelijk bekend om zijn karakteristieke liedjes over de meest uiteenlopende onderwerpen, maar staat voor mij toch vooral symbool voor correct en werkelijk taalgebruik. En voor de schoonheid van precisie. Door Nicole des Bouvrie. Eerder geplaatst op Zinweb.
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On Russia – Past and Present – A Personal Call to Action

Some things cannot be fathomed. So they need to be told, over and over. I am very glad books exist, that we have a written tradition through which generations can be connected. That I can get to know so many things, which my neighbour, my teacher, my family doesn’t know anything about.

But I’m also very sad, that we need these written manifestos to testify to that what cannot be said. I’m referring now to the book on the Gulag Archipelago written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died almost six years ago. In 1970 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature” (see link).

The Russian Soul
One thing that is clear from the start: there is something wonderful about being Russian. There must be. Everyone is so incredibly proud to be Russian. This is more than nationalism or patriotism. It feels very sincere.

But there is clearly something going on here that is very disturbing. This love for everything Russian has been abused in many ways. The law system involved, the political games. Solzhenitsyn describes it in detail, how it went from at least 1918-1950. How being acquainted, having shaken a hand of someone who turned out to be disloyal to the Russian spirit, would be enough to be arrested. There were no trials.  They would ask you why you were arrested, and if you would say ‘I did nothing’, this would be enough to send you to a hard labor camp for ten years. Because insinuating the Russian State made a mistake, would be counter-revolutionary in itself. And the examples go on and on.

Present Russia
Did something change, is this all in the past, can we forget about how the Russian people was cleansed of its thinkers, its writers, its intellectuals for many generations? And let’s leave aside the question about what people were left, what spirit is left, what the historical influence is of this process on the present Russian soul. Let’s purely focus on what is happening, what we can see. As if nothing has happened, did something change?

I fear not. Personally, I haven’t been to Russia (yet). My deep interest in everything Russian started when I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, when I travelled through Ukraine, when I had a Russian study friend, when I encountered the many Russian emigres in Israel. It got deepened through some very good documentary-travel broadcasts by Jelle Corstius (@JelleBC).

In these personal, non-generalisable, encounters, one thing emerged very clearly. The country is one, and one doesn’t complain. When I tried to explain my Russian friend the concept of ‘prophets’, or ‘manifestations of God’, she eventually smiled and nodded that she had understood what I meant. ‘So what you’re saying, Jesus and Muhammad are just like Putin!’. I didn’t know what to say next. I still don’t.

This is something that Solzhenitsyn explains very well. There is no good and bad. There is just one party to vote for, and abstaining or not voting is not wrong, it is just not done. Thinking in categories of good-bad, having any notion of morality is just beyond the Russian situation. They are not unmoral. But questions of what it means to be human are beyond what is possible to think. Which makes it impossible to judge the situation, in a way. If something is the case, and everything works in order to work, how could we pronounce this wrong?

So what to think when reading about the feeling of Russians in Ukraine, that they want to be part of the Motherland? Should we remind them about the time, in which the returning soldiers – who had risked their lives for that Motherland but were captured as Prisoners of War – who returned to Russia, were sent to the Gulag straight and without trial, simply because they had shamed Russia by being captured instead of dying?
Are we to forget the history of Ukraine itself, and the reason for so many people from Russian origin living in that country in the first place?

Small issues
Sometimes we read about some issue in Russia. Homophobia, maffia, corruption, drugs use, alcohol abuse, poverty. But we hardly ever read anything about what lies behind these thoughts. I am afraid that these things are not simply issues in which some harm is done in comparison to ‘our’ Western ideals. I fear that they are signs of far-reaching differences, that are not just threatening the world and the idea of freedom present in the West. They are dangerous, precisely because they do not stand on their own, they are part of a full history of dictatorships that have eliminated everyone who dares to even raise their eyes.

Personal objective
First thing to do, is not to remain silent. To confront people with thoughts. Presently one can find Russians everywhere. (Apparently having been in a foreign country is not by itself a reason to be given a ‘tenner’ anymore, as was the case in the time of Solzhenitsyn.) Why not ask them about these things? And not because we are interested in what they think about Ukraine, about the EU-boycot, about the political situation. But simply in order to see, whether the fact they are part of the survivors of the last century of Russian history, has made them to be exactly what was expected of them.
Or not.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

After Barthes

Pavel Filonov – Flowers of the Universal Flowering, Мировой расцвет

Yesterday I visited the exposition on ‘The Big Change’, on Russian Art 1895-1917. As you might know by now, I’m obsessed by the idea of ‘change’ (well, it’s the topic of my PhD, so I’m rightfully obsessed by it) and as I am very fond of everything Russian ever since the great documentary-travel-televisionseries by Jelle Brand Corstius, I was curious what this had to offer.
What I liked about this exposition, was that it used all sorts of art, although it was still conventional enough for old people to visit it (they bring in the money, of course) in that it showed mostly paintings. But the little alcoves with music composed in that time and the rooms with moving images made it into a great experience.
But after having read Barthes’ Camera Lucida just the day before, and having some great discussions about it with some friends from the European Graduate School, the paintings gave me a very morbid impression. What Barthes is describing about himself as an observer, is something that is easily recognized: being enchanted by something, as if there if something in the artwork (or, photograph as Barthes is focusing on that specifically) that like an arrow pierces you, hits you, yes even wounds you. It is not something that can be searched for in the artwork, it is not something that is rationally approachable. No, it is not what Barthes calls the studium, something that I see in the artwork that I can relate to, and which therefore interests me. Instead, what is moving me, what makes art great, is the punctum.
I realized at this exposition, that although the topic interested me, and the technique and the movement of that time and place is interesting and concerns something that I am thinking about a lot, this didn’t make me experience something unique, which is what ‘true’ art is able to do, in my opinion. It was this punctum that was missing, that lightening that I was waiting for.
Until I got the last room, in which one artist really made me boil inside. Pavel Filonov, ‘Entry into World Flowering’ 1914-1915. Amazing. I stood before it, for quite some time, not analyzing it, not trying to find out what this experience was. No meta-level. Just enjoying the amazing-ness. It was indescribable.
But something was still missing, that photography is a much more willing character for. Paintings are created, one brushstroke at the time. Photographs capture something fleeting that is now made to be there forever. The more the photographer is trying to bend reality in order for his picture to show what he has thought about, the more interesting the picture might become (in the studium sense of the word ‘interesting’), but the less force of capturing the observer it will have. Barthes describes this beautifully: “The Photographer’s ‘second sight’ does not consist in ‘seeing’ but in being there.” (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1982, p. 47)
Then, to end this discussion, I’d like to share a quote which was written on one of the walls of the museum. It shows how artists have a feeling for the bigger picture, and try to put it in words in perhaps a beautiful way, but it also shows how naive this can be…

We ourselves are creating our own hypotheses anew and only upon them, as in our inventions, can we build our new life and new world view. Revolution in art has always predicted the breaking of the old public consciousness and the appearance of a new order in life. (Ljubov Pupova 1921)

Speak in your voice. Speak as you.

Defying what is said in this article, I am going to quote a part I especially liked, as it is so very true that I feel it in my bones…

“…Which might well be why Nietzsche warned us: beware of your followers. Not so much that they may betray you (it didn’t hurt the legacy of the Nazarene too badly), nor even attempt to take over (otherwise the notion of dynasties would long have fallen), but that they may cite you, borrow your voice, echo you.
Speak in your voice. Speak as you.”

See the full article:
With beautiful art by Yanyun Chen (

Turkey and the Illusion of Democracy

Upheaval in Turkey. Government responding to peaceful protest. Tear gas. People died and are still dying. At this moment it is unclear what is actually happening, but at least it is clear that something is going on.
What am I to do, far away, in my comfortable home? I can share my thoughts. Not regarding what is right and what is wrong. Not regarding what should be done, who is to blame. Any remarks adding to the polarization of the situation seems meaningless in a situation in which the power structure of a country is turning against its citizens.

“Democracy”, an Illusion

Interesting is how this clash is almost immediately put in the context of ‘democracy’. According to news reports, PM Erdogan said that when people disagree with something, they can let it know by voting during the elections. From a theoretical point of view, I must agree with him on this point. ‘Democracy’ as we know it nowadays, is explained to the masses as a manner in which everybody gets a say as to what will be decided for the public arena. In practise this is limited to elections, and influencing politicians for instance through political parties.
But calling the present political system in Western countries, including Turkey, the United States and the Netherlands, a ‘democracy’ is extremely misleading. In reality, people have hardly any say in public affairs. Even when one party is exchanged for the next one after an election, policy is made by people in ‘power’, and power corrupts, and creates its own reality.

What People Actually Want

The problem with current ‘revolutions’ is that there is no alternative. This has been seen over and over again, from Egypt to Libya, Syria, Iran and probably now again in Turkey. Dissatisfaction makes people revolt against an oppressive system. That system breaks down, and once the rubble is taken away, people realise the space created thus is already filled with a system that is surprisingly similar to the one just overthrown. Surprisingly only for those who are involved with a breaking down without understanding that without a system to take over that creates an equal opportunity for everyone to be heard in matters related to their own being, there is no hope.
But there is hope. Technology and social media is nowadays supporting the people more and more. In doing so, it creates its own power structure. Everybody can shout whatever he wants. But what is picked up upon on Twitter, is not the tweet of the lunatic, but precise analyses and arguments – that are spreading across the world in a way that is truly revolutionary. I am hopeful that this will turn into a system to support something that is actually a constructive answer to cases of oppression: a deliberative system in which legitimacy is created by a procedure that creates a shared understanding of reality and translates this into policy. Bottom-up instead of top-down. In which governments realise their original role of parent of the nation: to educate and promote the interests of all by letting the people see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears.