The readings this week focus on the human element of Dutch society and culture. Previously, we have looked at visual culture (architecture, art, museums) to try to learn about Dutch identity. This week, there is an anthropological approach to analyzing Dutch identity. The authors are interacting with the environment they are assessing, interviewing people and noting their own perception of human life in the Netherlands. Some of the articles are more scholarly and look at the history and facts behind their current observations, others combine scholarly information with personal reflection from interviews, and in the case of Arnold Karskens article, he writes what he sees in a detailed first person narrative introductory style inviting the reader to come up with their own conclusions about the observations.
I think in taking an anthropological approach to interpreting current Dutch identity, and for any culture for that matter, it is important to include yourself in the narrative. In all of the essays, the author interacts with the subject he/she is analyzing and tries to understand the culture through immersion instead of through an objective eye. For example, Emily Raboteau illustrated her experience in the Sinterklaas parade and her own feelings toward Zwarte Piet in her article Who is Zwarte Piet? Straight off the bat, Raboteau establishes that she finds the tradition of Zwarte Piet to be racist based on her own perceptions and preconceptions she brings from American culture. While she illustrates a long history of slavery and xenophobia that proves her point that Zwarte Piet is a discriminatory caricature of black society, she focuses on the why. Why does Dutch society not see what I see? Why do they respond to Zwarte Piet in such a positive light? How do they respond to their own history? Do they even know their own history?
So, the essay is balanced between a historical narrative and an opinion piece that uses a journalistic approach. The significance of all these pieces is that the author connects to the subjects on a personal level and creates a discourse that allows the reader to form their own opinions and respond in a critical manner. Much like how we saw museum spaces changing the grammar of an exhibit to create tension and encourage critical inquiry onto the subject of the exhibit, the author provides this same communicative format encouraging critical examination of the cultural climate.
Arnold Karskens piece One Way to Live: A Photographic Essay takes this observational anthropological approach to the extreme. His work is mostly photographs with a short introduction to the prostitutes he encountered. However, the introductory paragraphs are bursts of Karskens own succinct observations mixed with comments from the women. A photograph accompanies each paragraph and the reader is able to put a face to the words. Karskens essay really humanizes the way we approach culture. I wholeheartedly think that a ‘picture can speak louder than words.’ While the essay emphasizes the use of drugs, lack of hygiene and housing, and violence associated with prostitution in the Netherlands, the photographs prevent the reader from homogenizing. Each prostitute looks different, has a different style, presents herself differently. While they can be identified by their career and drug use, you can see the differences between each women.
While I think these analyses of looking at identity through clothing, body, and behavior can provide interesting scholarship, there are certain limitations. Anthropologists and archaeologists have an ongoing fight over their approaches to culture. While archaeologists make conclusions based on factual physical evidence, anthropologists make conclusions based on observations and interactions. This can yield a generalization of a group of people if you are not careful. Furthermore, the eye isn’t trustworthy and neither is a person’s word. I struggle with this divide between fact and hard science versus observation and psychology.
To answer the final question, I think all these essays brought up migration and immigration with regard to a Dutch identity and prejudice. In every article at some point a person from a different ethnic background stated that even though they are Dutch citizens they don’t feel like they belong in the society because of the prejudice from the majority population. There is a certain way to dress and act in the Netherlands and if you don’t fit this mold you are categorized into a group that they can identify you with. I think this all comes back to the ignorance of the past because the current societal ethnic categorization stems from a history of colonization and slavery that the Dutch have not confronted and changed.
Photograph: Vanderhoek, Auke. “Zwarte Piet is Racisme.” Zwarte Piet is Racisme Tumblr, Netherlands, 2011, http://zwartepietisracisme.tumblr.com.