Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Aftermath or post mortem

Dust seems to settle. Time for reflexion, looking back, commenting upon and analyzing the flood of images that almost drowned us over the last six weeks. Unfortunately, reflexion reaches no further than commmon sense talk on tv. A special edition of the once slightly notorious tv program 'The Blue Light', hosted by Anil Randas, was broadcasted in which Randas looked back on a selection of images of the assassination of Theo van Gogh and its political and social impact.

However, a critical analysis of the images themselves and the discourses in which they functioned was a bit too much asked to the small assembly of intellectuals who sat around a table with each having a tv monitor in front of him or her (yes, there was one woman, a maroccan-dutch journalist of the Volkskrant). The analyses were mostly mere descriptions of what everybody could see with their own eyes, and the commments prolonged the discussions these images had provoked earlier instead of taking some distance and trying to reflect upon their cultural and political significance as images.

The by now notorious image of an elderly imam refusing to shake hands with minister of Integration Verdonk, because his religion forbade him to shake hands with a women, made the members of the panel align with positions others had taken earlier ('did she act right?'). The only critical question was whether this scene had been staged, since the minister must have been aware of the attention the media would pay to her visit to this conference, but any doubt about the integrity of the minister was shiftly dismissed. But 'intentionality' is no longer an issue in a world of 'real virtualilty' (Castells) in which images create rather than reflect a reality and tend to live a life of their own which is no longer governed by any intention of whoever.

The same goes for the discussion of the way talk show host Andries Knevel goaded a dutch young man who was converted into a muslim into admitting that he wouldn't mind if MP Wilders would die of cancer. The 'historian' Boekhorst, who tended to reduce every event to the realm of his personal experiences ('when I was a student I used to live above a Maroccan family and the wife was a prisoner of her husband...'), and so certainly succeeded in keeping the discussion at the level of 'you're perfectly right, neighbour', called this scene 'news' because it conveyed something to him he didn't yet know. First of all, it is quite incredible that an academic historian, who doesn't miss an opportunity to have himself exposed as an 'expert' on islam, Irak, and the threat Islam poses to the west, would never have heard of muslims who don't feel much sympathy for politicians, writers and artists who want to curb what they perceive as the 'islamization' of the West. Second, and more importantly, as a historian he should first of all critically question the documents and evidence he is being confronted with. Who is this young convert, and why is he in this program? What makes him so 'news worthy'? Who does he represent? Has he anything whatsoever to do with the murder of Theo van Gogh, is he connected to the 'Hofstadter group', etc. The mere fact that a document or a tv program tells you something you didn't know doesn't turn that information into a 'news worthy' fact: in fact, it doesn't necessarily turn that fact into a fact at all, as any serious historian knows and Boekhorst should know too.

Well, it turned out that this self appointed imam had been interviewed by a regional newspaper, that was interested in the reasons why a young dutch man, who was brought up as a catholic, would convert to islam. The journalist, however, soon intuited that this young man was psychologically disturbed, and reported that in his article. Knevel should have known this: this act of journalism was remarkably similar to practices of the American CBS channel, which were revealed in a documentary broadcasted by VPRO tv only a couple of months ago. Iconically, this young muslim was also choosen because of his resemblance to the description of Mohammed B, the killer of Van Gogh: short shaven skull, bearded, and dressed in a muslimm skirt. Van Ven, as the young man is called, exactly fitted the description eye wittnesses had given of Mohammed B. Although actually and factually Van Ven had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder of Van Gogh, the connection was made entirely through visual and verbal analogies. This is what a historian who takes his profession seriously should have noticed, instead of acting like the naive, surprised citizen who is surprised to learn that some right wing politicians are not very popular among the people they prefer to attack. Boekhorst disqualified himmself in this program in more than one way. Unfortunately the other members of the panel were no better.

The problem probably is, that people who (would like to) work for television are not the best qualified to reflect critically on tv. Vanity, vanity... and a missed chance.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

It has been a while

'Cause nothing much seems to have happened over here. His Royal Highness Bernhard, Prince of the Netherlands, passed away last Thursday. The anouncement of his death was made in the middle of a soccer broadcast. Luckily the country was not shut down until the funeral will be over, like it was at the times of death of Juliana and Claus.

It is a sign of the speed of our times, though, that journalists and news papers didn't wait for the funeral to publish major and minor incriminating information about the Prince. Two days after he died, it was reported on television that the weekly newspaper De Groene Amsterdammer would publish an interview their former chief editor, the late Martin van Amerongen, had had with the Prince, in which the latter admitted to have received a million dollars (or guilders?) worth of bribes from Lockheed. The current editor-in-chief of the Magazine endorsed this premature revelation by making an appearance himself in a tv news show in which he summarized and assessed the meaning of the Prince's statements. This has become a familiar ritual by now: tv programmes tell you what you will be able to read in print press publications, so you don't have to bother to read those publications themselves anymore. Apparently the sales of De Groene are so low that the editor thinks that this pre-publication on tv might boost the sales of this edition of De Groene beyond their normal level. However, by the time De Groene will appear in the bookstands everybody will have forgotten about the Prince's bribes or consider it 'old news'. And old news is for wrapping herrings, as they say in the Netherlands.

The other thing that keeps people busy here - besides the ongoing debates about our muslim fellow country men and women - are the boops of Georgina Verbaan. Flesh or chips, carbon or silicon, that's the question. In order to provide evidence that her tits are what they look they are Georgie had X-ray pictures of her boobies - which she tenderly calls 'Harries' - published on the front page of the biggest national news paper, De Telegraaf.
There is obviously quite a lot of irony in this gesture. To prove she has 'natural' breasts, Georgina produces highly technologically mediated images of the inside of her Harries: to show that her breasts are 'real' and not supported by prosthetic aides, she deploys advances technological extensions of the human eye that allow us to look under her skin. But whereas the pictures of her skin on the cover and inside of Playboy could be apprehended in the blink of an eye by anyone, the X-ray pictures displayed on the front page of the Telegraph could only be grasped by a few trained professionals who have the skills required to 'read' X-ray photographs. I for sure could not tell the difference between an X-ray picture of juicy fleshy breasts and a picture of dry silicon cones.

In a way, this titties-test shows what has become of the infamous Turing test in our days and age. People have become anxious to scrutinze the appearances of other human beings in order to try to establish whether they are 'real' or some technological contraption. Georgina is either very naive or (unbelievably) clever to bounce the scrutinizing gaze back to the beholder with scientific evidence that really proves nothing. It actually re-enacts the only really important question the Turing test raised: what difference does a difference make?

The jury is still out on that one, but the question only seems to become more imporant in the culture of the information society in which bodies are being increasingly seen as expressions of information patterns. If one succeeds in finding the key that unlocks the 'source codes' of our bodily being, such as the genome, one may start thinking of generating and engineering bodies or body parts one self, as has been prefigured in films like the Star Trek series ('beam me up, Scotty'), Terminator2 (Terminator Arnie),The Matrix (agent Smith), Lord of the Rings (Gollum), or Steven Spielberg's AI (little David), and is already being practiced in the cloning of animals (Dolly, and in the Netherland the bull Herman). Who can tell the difference between a 'natural' sheep and her clone Dolly? And again: what difference would that make? In Georgina's titty-Turing-test the human body is played out as a 'site' of naturalness, which only shows that it has already become a site of nostalgia in our contemporary posthuman culture.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Friday, November 26, 2004

'Wish you were dead....'

Media not only represent the world, but they increasingly shape it. Much of the panic and hysteria that has haunted the Netherlands for the last couple of weeks is due to hyperbolic reporting, scoop hunting, and the fear of missing out on something 'really important' on the part of the media. Of course, the assassination of Theo van Gogh was a major event, and the killer (probably) was part of a group of muslim extremists who had planned other murders on prominent dutch politicians as well. On the other hand one might doubt the professionality of these youngsters, who apparently killed Van Gogh as a substitute of their real target, who was out of their reach. Real professional terrorists would not have settled for a substitute and thus warned their real targets for what they were up, would they? The arsening of a musim school in a small provincial town was done by two 14 and 15 year old kids, and not, as media and government suggested, by right wing extremist groups.

Extremism is partly a creation of the media themselves. A good example of how it is created was given by Andries Knevel, talkshow host of the in its own right extremist religious broadcasting company Evangelische Omroep. For reasons that are still unfathomable to me he had invited a young former Christian who had converted to the islam. As most converts, he was more of a muslim than ordinary musims, but he was also a religious man who believes in sincerity. Knevel really goaded him into saying that he wouldn't mind the death of a right wing dutch member of parliament, but that he'd rather see him die from cancer than being murdered by a muslim. Here we wittnessed the live creation of a devil by an overzealous christian tv personality.

Of course other journalists started to dig out death wishes by Theo van Gogh and other champions of free speech, who have wished horrible deaths to many a politician or public figure with whom he had a quarrel (and almost every public figure in the Netherlands was on his hitlist).

Luckily the European soccer competitions have startd again, so the media can spend their attention and time to less harmful matters. Though racism is climbing the agenda of the sports programs rather quickly.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Shake hands!

Be sure never to refuse to shake hands with a Dutch cabinet minister. You might cause a national row. Now an extremely conservative imam did this, and this was, of course, a very inappropriate behaviour. After all, western women who go to arab countries are supposed to veal themselves, and to wear decent clothes. Men should also comply to certain forms of behaviour, so why shouldn't we demand a similar form of respect in return? And though in our democracies cabinet ministers are considered 'primes inter pares' rather than highly placed authorities, a minimum of politeness and decorum is required with regard to 'those who are placed above us', as Theo van Gogh used to call these persons. So it is indeed a very rude, inpolite and disrespectfull behaviour of this imam to refuse to shake hands of the minister, however much we may dislike her policies.

Still, these are confusing times. To hear a rap band singing 'We are against senseless violence' and thus up the very 'dissing' which made rap so popular is strange, if not quite incredible, indeed. But that's maybe only me, old grumpy man who expects representatives of cultural movements or subcultures to stick to some of their principles instead of paying lip service to common wisdom.

Thursday, November 18, 2004


Just reading a conversation between Paul Virillio and Derrick de Kerckhove, 'Conflilcts: the threat of the first global civil war'. It is striking how much of it relates to the current situation in the Netherlands. DdK remarks how Bush jr did after 9/11 exactly the opposite of what Clinton did after the first attack on one of the Twin Towers in 1993: Cllinton let the thing go, because he knew that, as McLuhan had said, 'if you don't want a catastrophe, pull the plug', i.e., don't let the media dwell on the event too much.

That's exactly what prime-minister Balkenende did in the first instance: he stayed in Bruxelles where he presided over a meeting of some European Union council and only showed himself one week after the murder of Theo van Gogh. Unfortunately, it has become impossible nowadays to pull the plug: the media cannot be stopped anymore, and since the prime minister had left leadership and initiative to other members of his cabinet, the government almost fell apart, and the media were gradually building up an image of a country on the verge of a civil war. In this, they were certainly helped by the Justice Department that sent what looked like an army into a neighborhood in The Hague to arrest a couple of presumed terrorists. These images helped to underscore the ongoing confusion between 'war on terrorism' and 'civil war', and one may fear that media and politicians are together exactly creating the catastrophe they pretend to prevent. Here we have moved beyond Baudrillardian simulacra: the hyperreal strikes back with a vengeance.

Hi world

Here I am, entering the blogosphere and fulfilling my cybercivilian duties by contributing to the emerging global e-(d)emocracy. Have to admit, though, that I'm not quite sure how and if this will work out.

Anyhow, this world seems in dire need of some dose of sober thinking and clear arguing. Mendacious and belligerent presidents get re-elected, and in my own country a right wing maverick who was assassinated two years ago has been bestowed with the title of 'Greatest dutch person ever' (sorry Rembrandt, Hugo Grotius, William of Orange, Antony Leeuwenhoeck, Spinoza, Van Gogh, Mondrian, Jan Tinbergen, Sicco Mansholt, and other artists, scientists, philosophers and politicians). Old media like broadcast & push television, desperately trying to keep attracting the waning attention of popular audiences must have a lot to do with this. The blue light of the tv screen has definitely obscured the last shinings of what was left of the Enlightment in the Netherlands, where once Descartes sought refuge from the French catholic king. He would surely be pretty surprised to learn that in the year 2004 ministers and members of parliament know nothing better to do than to discuss a obsolete piece of law which forbids to ridicule God. This two weeks after the brute assassination of an outspoken anti-muslim and xenophobic filmmaker Theo van Gogh (yes, relative of ...) who was killed by a muslim extremist who needed an organic stamp for a letter addressed to member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali. We seem to be heading for another period of crusading.

Well, the blogosphere might offer some relieve from all this real world madness, although colleagues of mine have already pointed out that Van Gogh's assassinaton had been amply discussed on extremist websites....