Unfortunately, prof. Piet Emmer took it upon himself – yet again – to write an op-ed in De Volkskrant in which he simultaneously manages to pat himself on the back for all he is worth, rebuke his fellow expert advisers for their ineffectual back-pedalling, and close the books on the whole Transatlantic Slave Trade affair – in just under a minute. He even ventures as far as to declare that the “De Slavernij” measures up to the standard (of documentary production) set by the BBC. Well, it needn’t be stressed that prof. Piet Emmer is seriously delusional. As I have stated before, “De Slavernij” went to great lengths to carefully eliminate anything that might prove too disconcerting. It ended up being a collection of scenes, held together by an extraordinarily boring search to some or other comic’s roots, and an equally boring narration – supplied by a very insipid presenter.
Prof. Piet Emmer states in his panegyric that we should try to view the slave trade and the atrocities that happened during the slave trade in the spirit of the times – and not let our emotions guide us. All in the name of “scientific objectivity”. This rationalistic approach of “scientific objectivity” raises, apart from concerns of absolute morality, some crucial epistemological concerns of how we know things about the past and what we, as moral beings, do as a result. The question of “how we know things” is a very compound question. For instance, what we know (the body of knowledge) about the past is created mainly through the interpretation of written documentation and artefacts. It is all down to our interpretation since, you know, we weren’t there to witness it. And even if we had been there we’d still have had to decode things, because, you know, written documentations or artefacts do not have any inherent meaning. It is through the network of systems of meaning and the process of interpretation that these articles gain meaning. Interpretation then is about constructing a coherent, plausible narrative. To put it simply interpretation is narrative is communication. So, events in the past are organized chronologically in order to follow each other in a linear pattern – even though events rarely, if ever, follow each other so neatly – so as to communicate progress and meaning. Thus the past becomes history only through a narrative discourse – an interpretation of past events. These interpretations build upon generally accepted, or stand in relation to conflicting, interpretations. As a result of this process of interpretation, any narrative discourse on the past is limited to the historian’s systems of meaning. Any monistic interpretation of history, i.e. an interpretation of history as a unified whole, as presented in the “documentary” “De Slavernij” is problematic since it fails to provide a counter-discourse (a conflicting interpretation) to its central discourse. According to Foucault, discourse is created, disseminated and perpetuated by those who have the power and control the channels of communication. Those who are in control decide what is worthy of research and how (in which context) it is discussed. Because of this the (meta-narrative) discourse will privilege established normative ideas, or assumptions. This regulation is achieved through the implicit marginalization of those who don’t share the ideas, or assumptions, propounded by the dominant discourse. Because of the nature of history (the past as narrative) the epistemology of history is highly subjective. Historians cannot reflect upon and interpret the past outside of modern-day systems of meaning. These systems of meaning, that privilege a certain reading, are pre-defined and embedded in the meta-narrative of society. These systems of meaning give birth to and contain the historian’s pre-narrative assumptions (i.e. his assumptions prior to his research/interpretation of the “facts” – the written records and artefacts). These assumptions will invariably influence the construction of said historian’s narrative discourses. It is rather silly to claim scientific objectivity as a historian (as a physicist it’s understandable) since a lot of the work is simply guesswork.
Prof. Piet Emmer writes, “Het probleem met onderwerpen als oorlog en slavernij is juist dat we het verleden kapot slaan met de knuppel van onze hedendaagse morele superioriteit.” (translation: That is exactly the problem with subjects like war and slavery, we beat them to a pulp with our modern-day morality). It is quite ironic that he should choose a metaphor that communicates a violent act to illustrate the argument that moral judgments have no place in the practice of history . An assumption with which Adrian Oldfield disagrees. Adrian Oldfield concludes in Moral Judgments in History that, “they [moral judgments] do have an inescapable role, but one that is not usually accepted by historians.” Lord Acton thought that the task of the historian is to pass moral judgement. But, you know, you’d never hear prof. Piet Emmer give a balanced account of the various discourses in his field of work. He’s far too busy being “an awesome expert” and singing the praises of half-arsed documentaries. Ugh, I’m so so tired of prof. Piet Emmer’s biased dross – I hope, against better judgment, that he’ll give his mouth and pen some quiet time soon…
On a different note: I’ve been toying (for a while now) with the idea of making a documentary about Blackness in The Netherlands (working title A Topography of Blackness) in which I want to investigate how various Black people in The Netherlands experience their Blackness, and how the notions of borders (as regards the immigration – the intramural diaspora – of Black people from former Dutch colonies), nationality, identity, nativeness and culture intersect. My opinion is that bodies – bodies of people of colour especially – act like maps, or texts, which are (mis)read through a variety of lenses. To me pigmentation acts like a diacritic that facilitates a certain (mis)reading. And I want to know how these (mis)readings influence our thoughts and ideas about ourselves. Plus, I find it necessary for people of colour in The Netherlands to preserve oral history. A while back I listened to a panel debate in which Karen Tei Yamashita, Samuel R. Delany and Nina Zivancevic discuss the problems associated with the translation of prose and poetry – both within one’s own language and from or to other languages – and what Karen Tei Yamashita said tied all the loose ends I had together. She discusses the diaspora of language and memory. If you want to listen to the audio of (the first half of) the debate click here.
At any rate, I have been detailing the structure and style of the documentary (I’m mostly inspired by the film maker Marlon Riggs). It’s my very first attempt at making a documentary. I must say I am very excited. And after having viewed the “documentary” the NTR made about the slave trade I – at least – have an idea of how not to make a documentary.