Jo van der Spek on Thu, 23 Aug 2001 10:06:21 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-nl] uitje


deze zondag preek ik in Batterij onder Brakel
omtrent Duurzame Versterkingskunst
en de Hollandse Waterlinie als "Goed bewaard geheim"
in het kader van Fort Asperen
vervolg op zie:
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
Title: Waste!
What a waste!

A lecture for a symposium organized by the Fort Asperen Foundation on the New Dutch Water Line* (delivered in Arnhem 1-12-00)

ďUnder the surface of public life floats a sea of  collisions
of cultures, that are not or hardly heard.Ē
 (Paul Scheffer, het Multiculturele 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 donít have to think about it. So how does it become a problem? When itís 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 thereís 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 ďnational projectĒ that is intended to expose ďthe power of cultural heritage as a source of income, inspiration, identity and integrationĒ. I, I, I, I.  It sounds quite like an  inward looking exercise.

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 too.
And the thing that doesnít kill you makes you stronger! So letí 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: ďbetter a complex identity than an identity complexĒ.


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 learned 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  ďLibrijeĒ, 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 nature.

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

ďCultural heritage is a source of income, inspiration, identity and integrationĒ, thatís what you read when you click on So Iíll 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 measure.
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 shouldnít 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 didnít 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 letís turn to the Belvedere Nota, which postulates as its main purpose that ďThe cultural-historical identity is to be a major guideline for designing the environment.Ē
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 itís true: in this country you do need strong arguments to counter the amalgamated powers of engineers, agribusiness and town-developers, and letís 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 donít know, or donít 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, doesnít it? That canít be the whole story! Thatís 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:  ďthe magnitude of the Line, best visible from the sky, should appeal to a sense of national prideĒ, 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 RandstadĒ.
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 canít 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, Iím 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 ďNational ProjectĒ, 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 doesnít 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, itís 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.
Itís 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 canít fight them (like they cannot fight most other enemies). Itís 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 didnít have it their way.

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 wasnít of Bosnian culture eitherÖ.

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 couldnít? 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 Iím modest, and donít 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 donít 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 your 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.


The caravan or ďsleurhutĒ, preferably filled with peanut butter and time-tested potatoes in the trunk has long been the emblem of Dutch mass tourism. It is no coincidence that the ANWB, the Dutch General Union of Motorists and Tourists is by far the biggest union of the Netherlands. I would say therefore that todayís emblem of Dutch tourism is the Internationale Reis- en Kredietbrief, which promises to solve any problem you may encounter while on the road. Dutch love insurances.
Just as the Dutch grow up controlling water, they are raised to control money. The world record savings in banks and especially the pension funds are the financial parallel of the polders and the dykes. The fortresses of course being the banks, the locks the pension funds.
Thatís what made this country rich. That is the dynamic of hard core main stream Dutchness.
So what would our collective identity, what would national pride gain by tourism to e.g. the Dutch Waterline? Here we have to try and distinguish between native tourism, the voyage or the pilgrimage into this heart of Dutchness on the one hand, and exotic tourism: luring strangers into visiting  our shrines of engineering genius, taking in the message of Dutch greatness and making sure that they pay in solid Euroís to finance the trip. Because thatís the only reason and purpose of the above mentioned policy paper: to create a win-win situation. Include all, fight no one and keep the dykes tight.

So what am I to win, when I jump on my bicycle or my skates and ride along sightseeing the Dutch water line? Now like I said tourism is a tricky business in itself. I was told that tourism is the 4th major business sector world wide by now. Thatís right after drugs, guns and tomatoes. Talking about Dutch greatness. Anyway the trick of tourism, and especially of seeing sites of Cultural heritage is the game it plays with real and counterfeit, authentic and fake. Every tourists who visits the grave of a great man knows that the man was not REALLY great, that he was never actually BURIED here, and that probably as a tourist he or she doesnít actually SEE anything, but rather takes snapshot, video-footage or a web cam, added by replicaís, souvenirs and fraudulent frames called histories consisting of legends, lies and odder liberties.
I visited once the quite new and extremely modern museum In Flandersí Fields in Ypers, West-Flanders. Here you are confronted with a radical representation of the First World War, with its endless trenches, chemical warfare and the human interest aspects of poetry, letters to lovers and mutual Christmas greetings from the opposing sides. If youíre into that kind of thing you can choose to weep with the widows or die in a trench. Itís an experience, a re-enactment and you know it, and youíll  like it. If only because you know you have to leave the battle field at closing time. Itís a tribute to human misery and senseless war waging, but also a politically correct attempt at reconciliation between the former enemies geared now to constitute the new greater Europe.
But for the people living in this town of Ypers it is hard to visit this museum. The sheer power of representation steals their private memories, and their indignation of what happened and what followed, what they were left it. It threatens their identity. Aggravating the very post modern syndrome of loss of self, loss of identity. Thatís what I like about this museum, it forces you to realize that identity is identical with loss. If history and itís representation are shifting constructs, so is identity, and collective or national identity is fake to the extreme.

And that is exactly the tricky thing about native tourism, of making a trip into your own collective soul, there where it can hurt most. It has to be a success, this trip, because once youíve been there you cannot just walk out and never come back. Because itís your own, your own history, your own land, to which you are attached. Seeing your own cultural heritage as designed by  architects, artists, historians and environmentalist can seriously damage your mental health! I therefore donít propose exactly, but rather recommend assigning teams of psychologists specialized in early intervention to the various sights. They should be there for the native tourists with a latent identity complex who expose themselves to this risk. Because cultural heritage is of course today a playground, or a battlefield for a variety of  mass mediators and cultural entrepreneurs. And so be it!

Now the difference between the battlefields of the First World war and the Dutch waterline, is that the Dutch water line was fake from the start. It was a non-battle field, it was lying their waiting to fulfill itís destiny of heroic victory or defeat (thatís irrelevant at this point). But nothing ever really happened around there, but for a lot of digging an dragging on. So I would say that itís the perfect environment for finally and of course virtually realizing itís destiny: a battleground where every one can compete and fight with all means necessary to impose his or her own interpretation and representation of history, identity, or whatever comes to mind. Landscape surgery? Cool! Attraction Parc? By all means ! The final inundation experience? Whenever you want it! We can even stage another civil war between defenders of the holy shrines and the free fields of fire, supported by local conservationists entrenched in petty nostalgia proclaiming the site untouchable, pitched against a coalition of visionary artists and entertainment industrialist like Steven Spielberg and Joop van den Ende who would like to re-edit the complete environment into a DVD offering you the ultimate experience of Total Recall and Jurassic Park in a typical Dutch dressing. But then again that would be another fake war, because they donít exclude each other.

But what has a stranger to win from experiencing the Dutch water line? Nothing much Iím afraid. As a Dutchman I canít imagine that a stranger would get turned on by  visiting these sites, unless of course we re-develop it in such a way that it becomes completely and absolutely unrecognizable for the natives. Which might not be a bad idea at all, now that I come to think of it.

Also tourists, travelers and other strangers passing through can derive some identity from the host territory they visit. And yes, that can lead to cultural collision. And yes, we are curious to hear from others how they see us.
So  let us ask about the feelings of  the pilots from the Luftwaffe, when they crossed the water lines.
And do letís ask the two young men from Ba Hu a village in the Chinese province Fujian. They are the two who survived the container transport to Dover on the 18th of June this year. A transport of illegal immigrants organized in Holland. Letís ask how their identity was reshaped after passing through the Netherlands. How do they interpret a Dutch hand, when we know that it was a Dutch hand who closed the shutter of the container, which then led to the other 58 travellers dying of suffocation.
Are we capable of putting ourselves in their position, the position of the enemy, of the invader, the intruder. Maybe not, because the Dutch are good in evading conflict, in looking away when things get high-explosive. They would rather drown their land and give up half of their territory than fight for it. They prefer to go in hiding, hiding their identity, disappearing into anonymity, accommodating to evil. And thatís cool. Itís the art of disappearance. Of not showing who you really are. Itís a way of being left alone, not having to bother, keep trouble at a distance. And thatís exactly what this Dutch waterline is al about: making the profile of the land invisible.

So we can do two things to reveal this essence of Dutchness:
- we force or seduce strangers to go through the experience of ultimate Dutchness offering them an intensive course of grondverzet (earth dragging), pneumonia and saving cattle from drowning, to kill the boredom of waiting for an enemy that will never show up
- or we declare the whole environment of the Dutch waterline holy and untouchable, no access for strangers, no trespassing of any kind. A no-go-area. To keep it a secret.
Iím afraid though  that this second option would be the hit of the century.  Because any tourist agent will jump on this golden opportunity to organize clandestine tours of the forbidden line. Dutch first of course. So this leaves us with only one option, the ultimate win-win: we close this wonderful environment for all Dutch citizens and reserve it for the peace keepers from out there. Because it will be mine field forever.

ďHet einde is het beginĒ, the end is the beginning, that is the mysterious title of one of the chapters of this Belvedere Nota. This revealing lapsus into mythical discourse, the discourse of the eternal circle of life, the never ending story of re-inventing something that you never had, nor missed nor lost was only three days ago exemplified by Research International, in an international image-research report commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  They tried but couldnít find a site with sufficient sex-appeal to attract enough foreign visitors. They express the need for an architectural symbol of modern, liberal Dutchness. But all they found was windmills and all that jazz. So they decided that the real appeal of the Netherlands is its people, for being multi-cultural, reliable and helpful.
What a tremendous disillusion! Really I  find this almost humiliating. The Dutch people, the most boring nation in the world! When we have our Water line.

What a waste!

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© Jo van der Spek

* 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.