jo on 4 Dec 2000 13:17:42 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] The Netherlands: What a Waste (part 1)

What a waste!

A lecture for a symposium organized by the Fort Asperen Foundation on
the New Dutch Water Line(delivered 1-12-00). The basic principle of this
defense system was inundation: more or less controlled flooding of large
areas of land to keep enemy armies out of the Western part of todays
Netherlands. It was a stroke of land some 85 kilometres long from the
Zuiderzee down to Zeeland. At strategic points fortresses were erected.
The original (later called Old) Waterline was conceived in the 17th
century. The New Dutch Waterline lies a bit more to the east to embrace
the town of Utrecht.

    “Under the surface of public life floats a sea of  collisions of
    that are not or hardly heard.”
    (Paul Scheffer, het Multiculture Drama NRC 29-1-00)

Cultural heritage, Identity and Tourism
What a nice tricky trio!
Okay, I will do all three.
Introducing myself, and trying to identify myself.
Identity becomes an issue, only when it is a problem. Identity is okay,
as long as you don’t have to think about it. So how does it become a
problem? When it’s under threat, or when it is imagined to be, or when
it is constructed to be under threat. In any way identity signifies
loss, loss of self. And it demands searching, soul searching.
But how fixed can identity be? Is it a cage, an illusion or rather a
magic box. And who wants to be the magician?

Cultural heritage is part of collective identity, which is in my view  a
pretty contradictory term.
But it is also in part imaginary, or imagined, made up.
And it can also be constructed, revived and manipulated.

So there’s a good reason to do some deconstructing of the piece of
heritage at hand. I am fortunate to do this by reading the Belvedere
Nota, a policy paper published in 1999 by four ministries.  This paper
announces a “national project” that is intended to expose “the power of
cultural heritage as a source of income, inspiration, identity and
integration”. I, I, I, I.  It sounds quite like an  inward looking

The New Dutch Waterline is a multidimensional environment. You can look
at it as a crystal ball, revealing a multitude of aspects, attitudes and
aspirations of the Dutch. I will endeavor to look at it as a Dutch man,
as a cultural critic and as a tourist who has never really been there.

During the trip I will come up with some suggestions or proposals for
bringing the thing to the surface in the public domain, as a theatre
ground, as a gallery, as a site and why not, as a battle field.

Looking into yourself can make you stronger! Sure, and you may get lost
And the thing that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! So let’ face it.

Rather than exposing our cultural heritage, I will suggest highlighting
the paradoxes, problems and tricks played in the New Dutch waterline:
self denial and exclusion, the art of disappearing and reclaiming
(Luctor et emergo), magic and loss.
The bottom line of my  discourse is best resumed by the slogan: “better
a complex identity than an identity complex”.


I was born in Zutphen, some 44 years ago, the year of the Suez crisis
and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. But rather than going out into the
big world, as a boy I favored digging up the past that lay hidden in the
back of our garden. A solid wall made of kloostermoppen, oversize
bricks, that constituted in my imagination at least the outer
fortification of the town back in the old days. I liked to believe this
was my favorite pastime, but after consulting my mother, I realized we
never got deeper than a few inches. In reality I preferred climbing over
walls, and building huts. So you see how easily you fall in the trap of
mystification. But at least I remember that ancient wall in the back of
our garden.
 In front of our house was a little park, with lots of trees to climb
and tumble down from, hidden bushes where we could do our burning and
looting and a canal, yes a canal. The best part of the canal was that
every now and then it ran dry, which enabled me and my friends to wander
in the mud among the reed. Our own virgin jungle.  And of course the
Statue, a knight on a high pedestal. Sir Philip Sidney was the name and
only later I learnt that he was the first foreigner that had been
invited to become the monarch of the newly established independent
Netherlands, back in 1581 or so. He wisely refused. Another magic memory
is my watching how a man was chiseling the name and the message anew
onto the pedestal. I forgot the message of course. But not the
dedication applied on conserving he statue. Which was a message in
itself of course.
Zutphen was mentioned only once in the history textbooks and merely as a
date: 1555 Zutphen en Naarden uitgemoord, exterminated by the Spaniards.
Nobody ever talked about it. And there was a Spanish restaurant in town,
I believe. Zutphen is the proud owner of a precious collection of old
bibles, the  “Librije”, which attracts scholars and tourists from all
over the world. Especially Americans dig old books. The oldest bibles
are catholic of course, just like the Spaniards that burnt the place
down. This goes to show that exploiting positive memories is easier and
possibly more profitable than memorizing suffering and death. Which is
quite cool with me. If it were not for the ghosts looming in the back of
the collective mind.

My father used to take us out rowing on the river IJssel. Swimming in a
real river and even crossing it is no doubt an edifying and identity
building experience: the challenge of conquering the current. You feel
yourself grow when you raise yourself out of the water on the other
side. Once I nearly drowned when a big boat sucked me into the
slipstream, but my father saved me. The best part of living in a hydro
culture was building dams in the river, another form of conquering the
current, a first attempt to rule the world and get to know the limits of
human endeavor. And learning to relinquish  oneself to the power of

This is from my biography, including history, cultural and material
heritage and nature. From this anecdotal review of my youth we can read
how identity is being shaped. Without further need to define this
identity. But Zutphen is a source, yes of identity, of inspiration and
maybe even of integration of my own private personality: to see my life
as a whole, a continuum.  And a source of income too, because I do get a
modest fee for telling you about it. And I suppose you pay a similarly
modest fee to listen to me.

Cultural heritage

“Cultural heritage is a source of income, inspiration, identity and
integration”, that’s what you read when you click on
So I’ll drink from that, swimming along  the Water line.
Being born in Zutphen, far east of the Waterline, I feel a deep sense of
betrayal. The Waterline is defending only the rich and important part of
the Nation! Inundation of the stroke of land that separates the rich
part, say Holland, relinquished the rest to the enemies. Just like
Zutphen was left alone when the Spaniards felt like having an
extermination party. This happened when The Netherlands was in the
process of being born as a nation, if not as a state. We know that there
is a deep-rooted resentment in the so-called provinces towards the
arrogance of Holland, which still persists and seems to be concentrated
in the grachtengordel, the girdle of canals of Amsterdam. Do I now
remember a sense of  victory when I invaded this old mansion on one of
these canals? This resentment is scarcely made visible or explicit, but
it is there and it is threatening the integrity of the nation and it is
real: de Dutch Waterline is the material testimony of its foundation: it
is the dividing line of a nation split in two from the start.

The waterline was constructed at the cost of lots of money, mainly
amassed in our colonies in the East, at the cost of the labor of many
peasants and villagers along the line who were forced to move millions
of cubic meters of earth for the sake of defending Amsterdam. And when
occasionally the waterline was activated, the farmers who worked the
land were rigorously forced to give up their crops and cattle, and the
poor souls who were mobilized to guard the fortresses were badly fed and
given over to asthma, pneumonia and wet feet. No wonder that activating
the water line was never really successful. Acts of sabotage, bribery
and extortion occurred frequently, and only by imposing death penalties
did the authorities manage to implement this defense system.
The original, or Old Dutch Waterline worked only once, really. In 1672
it was used to keep the French away from Holland. It required a lot of
brutal force and improvisation to do the inundation, put up temporary
batteries and fortresses and remove all obstacles, but it worked. Thanks
to the weather, by the way. Because at first the inundations froze, so
as to give the French a freeway to Holland. Fortunately after a few days
the ice started to melt and the French had to retreat, plundering,
raping and killing as they went back.
On later occasions the Line was activated, but only as a preventive
The finest hour of the waterline should have arrived in 1794-95 when
Napoleon decided to set up a permanent residence in Holland. This time
it was freezing and freezing and freezing, and the freeway over the
Waterline made conquering Holland a piece of cake. No Berezina
experience here for the French  army under general Pichegru. He got
Holland served on a plate topped with icing.

The New Dutch Waterline was conceived in the French days , by C.R.T.
Krayenhoff, and the first King William was quite happy to promote this
collaborator to nobility and Inspector-General of Fortifications. As
such he was in charge of the extended dub version of the Old Waterline.
A bit further to the east, to include Utrecht.  This would-be New Dutch
Waterline has never been effective, never made sense in a military way.
In 1885 the introduction of the high-explosive shell, made all
fortifications redundant. As such the line has always been a classic
case of senseless, structural violence (zinloos geweld).
But the mega project did make sense in the sense of nation-building: it
connected the present with the founding practice of the Dutch republic,
it was a national project in scope and investment and of course it
confirmed the national identity of a people born to struggle with water,
either as an enemy or as an ally.

History according to the Belvedere Nota  stops in 1900, which is funny
for obvious reasons. Continuity shouldn’t stop. And the experience of
WW1 and II is quite enlightening as well. During WW I it became clear
once again how senseless the whole concept was: the art of defense
always lagged behind the art of attack, and the military were still
badly equipped either to fight off enemies (that didn’t show up) or to
survive in their own shelters.

The final blow, and the final proof of the senselessness of the
Waterline came in 1939 and 1940: after a year of mobilization,
inundation, deportation and fortification the German Luftwaffe did what
is until he present day considered as the best way to experience the
Waterline: from the air, on their way to bomb Rotterdam to ashes.

And now to press this point home, and returning to my source of identity
as a boy from Zutphen, I must point out that the Waterline did finally
function in the winter of 1944-45. Holland WAS effectively blocked from
the farm lands and the food in the provinces. The Germans HAD time to
pack their precious souvenirs and destroy the rest. And although even
this was never made explicit or visible, I feel a sense of justice here:
justice has been done for the betrayal of all those centuries towards
the provinces, towards Zutphen. Sweet revenge, sweet revenge.

Now let’s turn to the Belvedere Nota, which postulates as its main
purpose that “The cultural-historical identity is to be a major
guideline for designing the environment.”
Now this is a promising slogan, but delving into the substance you are
left quite empty handed.
If you ask what IS this cultural-historical identity, and what exactly
is the significance of the cultural heritage described, you search in
vain for an answer. And probably this is on purpose. Because the
authors, representatives of 5 ministries, prefer to leave this to
others. They may know that it is a tricky matter. And besides, they are
just presenting arguments for not overlooking the Cultural Heritage as
one element of environment and  landscape. And it’s true: in this
country you do need strong arguments to counter the amalgamated powers
of engineers, agribusiness and town-developers, and let’s not forget
the  landscape-designers. This Nota which proclaims a culture shift
(cultuur omslag) is after all quite timid and defensive in substance and
ambition. This lack of substance (what is the value, the meaning, the
significance of e.g. the Dutch waterline for shaping Dutch national
identity?) either takes it for granted that everybody takes it for
granted. Or they simply don’t know, or don’t want to know. Or is there
may be a hidden agenda, which pops up between the lines here and there?
The value of the New Dutch waterline is described as a strong example of
a collection of cultural historical values: archaeological sites,
architectural history, and landscape history. Okay, cool. And because
the management and development of this multi-dimensional environment
requires an integrated approach it is a matter of national effort to do
the job. Concrete action is recommended in two ways: to establish an NV
Fortenbeheer, or Fortress Management Ltd., and applying for recognition
with UNESCO to declare the whole lot World Heritage. This smells like a
museum, doesn’t it? That can’t be the whole story! That’s just not good
enough for a national project. A museum is for tourists, we want
something for ourselves for our future! Something big, something grand.
Something to show off. And we have it right here:  “the magnitude of the
Line, best visible from the sky, should appeal to a sense of national
pride”, we need  a grand projet (for which we borrow a French
expression) to guarantee its recognizability, history and landscape, a
kind of mega canal around the Randstad”.
Now this is the proper tone to address big time politicians and
engineers and architects. They have something to do, something to dream.
But is it also good enough for tourists? I will turn to this later. Lets
first ask if it is good for us, ordinary Dutchmen.

Now to answer these questions on identity,  I will change to be a
cultural refugee from Sarajevo. I have a biography of multi-cultural
urban boyhood, a career of critical cultural writing and project
development, and I have learned about Dutch society and culture through
a reception center in a former military barracks, until finally arriving
at the chance to start my own life and work in this friendly country.
But I can’t deny my past and the contamination of culture that my
hometown and country has experienced over the last ten years.
So, when I read this nota, I’m happy that these cultural-historical
values and this collective identity are not made explicit. On the other
hand I have reason to be suspicious when I read the term “National
Project”, because it smells of nationalism, which is also a project with
a manifest destiny and a rigorous formulation of origins, history,
present and future. And remember it doesn’t have to be cleansed or pure
to be contaminated. A national project always starts with spreading the
notion that something vital, something essential to the nation is under
threat. And that we as a nation have a mission to join hands to counter
that threat, erasing the enemy and shaping our destiny in line with our
authentic past and obvious opportunities for self realization.

Now in a way, it’s all there in this Belvedere Nota: the common
challenge (gemeenschappelijke opgave), the continuous story of the land,
the necessity to tap our sources of inspiration, to use them as a
fertile source, the threats to our heritage, the loss of identity,  the
need to establish a tradition of future-oriented research and the urge
to make a big leap forward.
It’s only in extremely vague terms that the threats are formulated:
modernization and change, large scale development, globalizing culture.
And the language used evades explicitly any suggestion of conflict. This
is not surprising, because the main threat, the most serious enemy is
inside ourselves: the Dutch love creating and recreating their own land,
they have always laid their destiny in the hands of engineers, the
high-priests of the Water-state. And the Dutch know very well, that you
can’t fight them (like they cannot fight most other enemies). It’s a
learning process, and every advantage has its disadvantage. So you have
to accommodate them in order to create win-win situations.
Exactly like the engineers have learnt to accommodate, to integrate
environmentalism, when they did their mega project called Deltaplan. And
when they were attacked for destroying historic landscapes during the
operation of making the river-dykes higher. In a way I believe this Nota
is a reflection, again not explicitly, of the cultural collision on the
river dykes. And quite necessary because this conflict led to initial
stages of civil war between defenders of history and defenders of  the
future, both sides proclaiming disaster when they didn’t have it their

In the last ten years, it seems, you have learnt the danger of
neglecting identity, or should I say: you have realized that many people
fear a loss of identity and there for love to read about their regional
history, identity, cultural heritage. That they need references for
identification and diversity. This policy paper at least recognizes that
this is a good sedative: to compensate the unease and loss of identity
that comes with big scale environmental developments.

I can tell you that  fooling around with national identity is like
skateboarding on quicksand. Conflict, ghosts and disaster are always
looming under the surface. So it may be wise to scuffle them under, but
it may be wiser even to bring them to the surface and make a radical
choice. I know that this is not a feature of Dutch culture, but then
again, it wasn’t of Bosnian culture either….

Who am I to tell you that you can play with water? But can you play with
fire too? Can you deal with high-explosive shells, like your water line
couldn’t? I am a foreigner, I still feel like being a guest in your
country. Although I do have Dutch nationality, have a Dutch passport,
and do speak your language. And I know that you like me, when I’m
modest, and don’t bother you to much with my private or political
problems. I am afraid you cannot deal with high-explosive people. I
value your attempt to help out in the Bosnian mountains or in the
Eritrean/Ethiopean desert. But I understand that you have a hard time
dealing with high-explosive situations.
But, you will never accept me as an equal Dutchman, because of my
accent, because of my origin, because of my being a stranger for ever.
And I am a stranger because I don’t share your cultural heritage. Maybe
you can try to force me and yourself to overcome this obstacle? Maybe
you can make me feel at home in your Dutch waterline. Maybe you should
invite me and my fellow refugees to spend a week or so hauling water,
moving earth and gazing from the Fortresses over the open land. As part
of your inburgering, your integration traject? I will tell you later
about my experience. And you will tell me if it has made me more Dutch,
more acceptable.
Until this later notice I will remain suspicious of you war and water
time metaphors of immigrants coming in waves, streaming in unidentified,
undocumented, uncontrollable, flooding your country, and the need to
throw up effective defense lines against us to prevent disaster. Or to
forcibly integrate us into your way of life, without giving me the right
to suffer or cherish my own complex identity.
Thank you.

(to be conitued in part 2)

© Jo van der Spek, journalist, program maker & tactical media consultant
H. Seghersstraat 46
1072 LZ Amsterdam
tel. +31.20.6718027
mob. +6.51069318

better a complex identity than an identity complex

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