An embodied, multivocal story of a tradition of protest

By Henk Molenaar1

Dissenting Voices has come across to me as a loosely orchestrated search into historical voices of protest against injustice and oppression. As the search process unrolls, a story develops about a tradition of protest against (post)colonialism. It is a process in which the four story tellers progressively come to realise that this tradition actually exists and that it stretches back into the past and forward into the future much further than they initially were aware of. They also come to realise (to a greater or lesser degree) that they themselves stand in this tradition. The story of Dissenting Voices itself is part of this tradition. It is an intriguing and convincing story. I also think to see something that the story tellers maybe have not seen (at least not fully and consciously), and that is – if I am allowed to be so Hegelian – the birth of the self-consciousness of this tradition. I’ll come back to this point further on.

Reluctantly, I must say that I am not altogether happy with the introduction because it does not really serve the purpose of an introduction to what Dissenting Voices is. It mixes a few introductory remarks with a description of the process and the presentation of conclusions. What I miss is a reflection and analysis of how during the search process the purpose and central questions of the project changed (widened) and how especially Janse and Hoek came to see their earlier work in a new light and how they gave a place to some of that earlier work in the unfolding story of Dissenting Voices. It in this respect (and not only in the collaboration with Jansz and Sijsma), that Dissenting Voices differs from more traditional forms of scholarly work. It is a process of shifting, developing and emerging insights. This is one of the ways in which Bridging Humanities is experimental. I would have welcomed more reflection and deeper analysis on these points. As it stands, the introduction makes the impression of a retroactive attempt to present Dissenting Voices as a relatively consistent scholarly piece of work. It feels like a closure rather than a warming-up.

I also miss a serious reflection on the choice of the biographies and – more basic- the choice of the format of biography to further unfold the story of Dissenting Voices. I am aware that Bridging Humanities has reasons to make use of this format. But in this particular case I find it less appropriate. In the biography of Sutan Sjahrir, suddenly development cooperation is presented as successor of ethical colonial policy. This is an interesting and meaningful insight, but what has it got to do with Sutan Sjahrir? In the biography of Siebe Lijftogt we find a link to an article of Hoek about Wolter Gerungan and (among other things) the complex post-war situation in Indonesia. And in the biography of Rachmad Koesoemobroto there is reference to Kehinde Andrews and the debate about decolonising historiography and education. All these topics are interesting and indeed relevant for the story of Dissenting Voices. But this widening of the story, important as it is in the emerging picture of a tradition of protest, is somewhat hidden – at least unannounced – and stuck away in the format of a biography. And why the choice for these three? An explicit motivation of the choice for precisely these three (next to Willem Bosch) would have been welcome.

A biography, of course, is also a story. If Bridging Humanities wishes to use the biography as leading format, one could argue that the story of Dissenting Voices itself is a biography, a biography of a tradition of protest against the (post)colonial system. And since the story tellers are part of (position themselves in) that tradition, one could even speak of an autobiography.

As the story unfolds, ever wider themes and topics are touched upon. This widening of the story, for example, to touch upon development cooperation  – or, for that matter, the debate on slavery, the agenda of decolonising historiography and other themes – is interesting because it makes clear that the tradition of protest against the (post)colonial system did not come to an end with the independence of Indonesia. Aside: in that respect it might be of interest to include an analysis of Indonesia’s move to sever the development relation with The Netherlands because of Jan Pronk’s critical stand on human rights.2

In a more personal sense also, I find this connection with development cooperation intriguing. As it happens, I have a professional background in the aid industry (via DGIS and SNV) 3 and from within that sector over the years I have developed and published an ever more radical criticism. Later, back in The Netherlands (from within DGIS and WOTRO), I reflected on the role of knowledge in development and on the ethnocentric character of the dominant development discourse. I raised a dissenting voice, so to speak. So, unexpectedly, I find myself placed in this tradition of protest and the wider story of Dissenting Voices.

The widening of the story to touch upon other debates in The Netherlands (for example the Zwarte Piet debate)4 makes clear that the story of Dissenting Voices is first and foremost a Dutch story about a Dutch (including Dutch East Indian) tradition of protest against the (post)colonial system. I was not aware that in the 19th century the debates about abolition of slavery and the oppressing cultivation system in the Dutch Indies were so closely connected. In ‘De Afschaffers’, Janse points out that in both debates Dutch financial interests blatantly and shamelessly played a role. Other texts explain that the abolition of the cultivation system was postponed to serve the funding of the abolition of slavery (through the financial compensation of the slave owners). Such irony! However, the fact that both critical traditions still live on is a beautiful and heartening insight. Neither the abolition of slavery nor the independence of Indonesia ended these traditions. Of course, neither did they end the tradition of justifying wrongs and ignoring or marginalising voices of protest.

Are Janse and Hoek aware that they stand in a tradition of protest and that they positioned themselves in that tradition? Yes, that is evidently the case because they reflect on it and stress the importance of critical voices. Are they aware that this tradition has not come to an end and is still unfolding? Yes, because they point this out themselves. Still, there are ambiguities to be found at various places in Dissenting Voices about the reality or continuity of this tradition. For example, why the question mark in the title of the introduction? I would have welcomed further reflections on this.

A further explication of the tradition of protest and resistance against the (post)colonial system might have looked into relations with the dominant tradition of promoting, defending, justifying and legitimising the colonial system. The dominant discourse seems to show (if a may indicate a few hasty steps) a development from introducing and defending the cultivation system, via the ethical colonial policy, and via entering into development cooperation after independence, to a search for collaboration between equal partners. The protest tradition identified and described in Dissenting Voices runs from moral criticism of the cultivation system, via the call for independence, criticism of paternalistic development aid, to the agenda of decolonisation of historiography and the dominant development discourse. Both traditions – the dominant and the suppressed discourse – seem to unfold jointly.

In ‘The way forward’, Purwanto – the team leader of the Indonesian part of the joint research programme ‘Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-1950’ discussed in Dissenting Voices – is credited with the thought that decolonisation is still ongoing and will perhaps never end. This is yet another point that could have been picked-up for further elaboration and reflection. This idea that decolonisation continues (and, according to the story of Dissenting Voices, started way back in time) may become important for the joint research programme. In such a perspective, the bitter and uncompromising differences of opinion about the exact year of Indonesia’s independence (1945 or 1949) loose some of their urgency and relevance. It could indeed be a basis for joint history writing.

Let me end this section with pointing out a notion which, I feel, makes itself implicitly felt but is not explicitly expressed in Dissenting Voices. The continuing future process of decolonisation covers (among many other things) the decolonisation of historiography. This is a clear and outspoken agenda and challenge, but unavoidably is also itself a historical process. Historiography is part of history, just like historians can be part of their own object of study (for example as activist historiographers). This is what I meant when I referred above to the birth of the self-consciousness of the tradition of protest of Dissenting Voices, a self-consciousness that seems to be at the very point of coming to light.

Transdisciplinary co-creation in a digital multimedia environment

I see Dissenting Voices as the outcome of a search in which the four principal persons involved (Maartje Janse, Anne-Lot Hoek, Ernst Jansz and Sjoerd Sijsma) each present an interpretation of historical data and processes. Partly they present their messages individually and consecutively, but partly also collectively and in some sort of dialogue. All use their own perspectives and expertise, and the means and media they deem fit. Because of this, the search takes on aspects of co-creation and transdisciplinary collaboration. They bring their own questions and source material to the search process, which as a result finds new directions and sheds new light on earlier steps.

In Janse’s reflection on the process of co-creation, the paragraph about her initial reluctance to reflect on that process is poignant and represents an important step in the unfolding story of Dissenting Voices. Her reluctance is quite understandable. The ideal of objective scholarship may be somewhat obsolete, it is nevertheless the norm in which we have been disciplined. It is important, because she explicitly manifests that she steps out of the discourse of objective historiography and positions herself in the tradition of protest against the colonial system, the very tradition that she is researching. In other words, she breaks with the distinction between herself and that what she studies and from that moment on she is not only scholar but also activist. No wonder she is glad with Jansz’ powerful ballad which reminds her of the protest songs of Bob Dylan and Boudewijn de Groot5 The choice for the format of a pamphlet (a format of protest) in the form of a video pamphlet made by Sijsma is consistent with this stand.

Maybe for Hoek such a positioning came easier because of her background in investigative journalism. This is a form of journalism which by its nature is somewhat activist, aiming at exposing what is hidden or silenced. Her eagerness and enthusiasm in searching for connections and similarities with other critical traditions (not only in the biographies, but also in ‘Historical debates’ and in ‘The way forward’) speeds-up the story of Dissenting Voices. It is interesting to read that she makes a career move from investigative journalism to historiography. No doubt she will remain critical and (possibly) activist, but it will be interesting to see whether she will find herself merged in a field of tensions. Especially because she is involved in the research programme ‘Independence, decolonisation, violence and war in Indonesia 1945-1950’, a joint Dutch-Indonesian research programme which is subject of heated debates, as Hoek herself explains in ‘The way forward‘. Will she become embrangled in such debates with the team leader(s)?

Whatever the case, Janse and Hoek themselves choose to be part of the story in a situated, embodied and activist way. Dissenting Voices looks beyond scholarly discipline to search for a dialogue with journalism, music and artistic video. Non-academic knowledge, experience and forms of expression are part of it. The story of Dissenting Voices is told and produced through transdisciplinary co-creation in a digital multimedia environment.

 Role of the journal/publisher in relation to authors and reviewers

Let me now try and look beyond Dissenting Voices and reflect on what it means for Bridging Humanities and its role within Voice4Thought. Bridging Humanities was set up as a new online platform to experiment with alternative ways of (peer reviewed) academic knowledge production. Within Voice4Thought, a need was felt for more academic recognition and visibility. Bridging Humanities was to serve this purpose.

How can we characterise Dissenting Voices in this context? In the above sections, what did I reflect and comment upon? In the various texts, Dissenting Voices is referred to as a platform, but also as an article or publication or as a project or process. This equally holds, I believe, for other issues of Bridging Humanities. I have the impression that there is not yet a single concept to capture what Bridging Humanities does and produces. Bridging Humanities is searchingly trying to find its way. It is an experiment, maybe a new and different form of scholarly practice, or activism, journalism, art or something in between.

Nevertheless, the journal has high academic ambitions: reflecting on visual transfer of knowledge, knowledge production in co-creation, new epistemology of knowledge production. What does the example of Dissenting Voices tell about Bridging Humanities’ potential in this respect?

It may be useful to try and capture what the musical and artistic video contributions accomplish in the story of Dissenting Voices. What do they bring about? Let’s start with the ballad of Sarina and Kromo. In his spoken introduction, Jansz positions himself in a family tradition of fight against injustice. In this way he himself becomes an illustration of the message of Dissenting Voices about the tradition of protest. And he further illustrates this with his beautiful and powerful protest song. In a sense, he embodies the central message. Does this create new scholarly knowledge? No, I believe that is not the case. But it does strengthen the activist character of Dissenting Voices and the embodied spirit of struggle against injustice.

Sijsma’s video pamphlet alternates footage of Jansz’s performance of the ballade with images of an interview with Janse. Sijsma further masterfully inserts historical photographs and video fragments that correspond with what Jansz is singing and what Janse is saying. In the video pamphlet, the pictures of Janse and Jansz strengthen one another. In the video of Janse’s interview, Sijsma inserts historical film clips of themes and topics Janse speaks about. By alternating this with the sound of Jansz’s performance – equally accompanied by historical film clips that seem to correspond with Jansz’s text – the impression is created that Sarina and Kromo are historical figures. From a perspective of historiography this is a faux pas, but artistically it is a beautiful piece of work. It strengthens the engagement with the feelings of protest and resistance. The artistic contributions of Jansz and Sijsma, therefore, do not support the scholarly dimension but the activist dimension of the Dissenting Voices story.

How about the other way around? Did the scholarly dimension of Dissenting Voices strengthen the expressive or aesthetic power of the ballad and the video pamphlet? I do not think so. Maybe Janse’s enthusiasm and Jansz’s visit to the library to see the historical material of Willem Bosch inspired him to compose such a beautiful ballad. But I do not think such inspiration was evoked by Janse’s scholarly merits. Maybe Sijsma comes somewhat closer in the video fragments about Janse. But I do not think it was the cognitive aspect of Janse’s knowledge that inspired him. It is the affective and embodied nature of that knowledge which he captured in his video and used in the pamphlet. In other words, the scholarly content and artistic contributions of Dissenting Voices do not really touch one another. But they both strengthen the activist character and the awareness and experience of the tradition of protest.

Hoek’s contribution of investigative journalism into historiography seamlessly fits in with an effort to connect academia and activism. The more so, since Hoek herself makes a career move from investigative journalism to historiography and reflects on this in her contributions. However, this does not manifest a radical new way of knowledge production.

Does this mean that the Dissenting Voices’ co-creation does not at all lead to new knowledge or a different type of knowledge? After all, this is one of the ambitions of Bridging Humanities. Does Dissenting Voices contribute to a new epistemology of knowledge production? Well, maybe it does. In one of Sijsma’s video fragments of her interview, Janse passionately speaks about touching the ink of Willem Bosch’s writing and about his trembling lips and fluttering hairs. Does that add to the historiography of 19th century protest against the cultivation system? Not really or at least not much, but is does make clear and palpable that Janse sees herself positioned in this very tradition. In his video, Sijsma managed to capture affective, embodied and situated dimensions of Janse’s knowledge, together with her passion, engagement and fighting spirit.

The video unveils and externalises these dimensions. I find it conceivable that this resulted in a growing awareness and acceptance by Janse herself that she is (and wants to be) part of a tradition of protest, a tradition moreover which is not ended. Maybe through the collaboration with Jansz and Sijsma this awareness was strengthened and awakened into new knowledge: also the future (her future) is part of history. And maybe this is what Hoek liked about and made her partake in the project. Thus, Dissenting Voices became a story in which scholarship, artistic expressions and journalism met and resulted in a historically self-conscious form of activism. The academic side of this activism takes on the shape of an agenda to (further) decolonise historiography.

Of course I cannot be sure of this. We cannot find this line of thinking expressed explicitly in the reflections of the story tellers on the process. But I already indicated that I feel that these reflections could be deepened at some points. Whatever the case, I think that Dissenting Voices fully meets the goals and ways of thinking of Voice4Thought. But does that also hold for the more specific role of Bridging Humanities within Voice4Thought?

Is Dissenting Voices an academic story? Does it manifest scholarly discipline? Because of the multivocality of the story, traditional scholarly practice (a univocal problem analysis, a central question derived from this, a methodology consistent with this analysis and research question, and a rigorous and consistent argumentation) does not apply. There is no claim that the researchers objectively describe historical processes from a privileged, Archimedean standpoint. On the contrary, both Janse and Hoek explicitly distance themselves from such type of scholarship.

Voice4Thought is part of a broad post-modernistic movement in the social sciences and humanities. This movement criticizes the claims of modernistic science on objectivity and independence. It calls for attention to the affective, embodied, sensory and socially situated aspects of knowledge. And the movement regularly seeks and transcends the limits of academia to involve non-academic sources and partners in the production of knowledge. I raise the question what in such a context peer reviewed academic knowledge production means. The example of Dissenting Voices shows that for the time being Bridging Humanities still searches for an answer.

It is interesting to note that contrary to Janse, Jansz and Hoek, Sijsma is not visible in the visual material of Dissenting Voices. Surely, that is not only because he is the man behind the camera. As it happens, Sijsma has contributed much more to Bridging Humanities than the video pamphlet for Dissenting Voices. He is part of the team that works on the design of Bridging Humanities. Likewise, the editor-in-chief Kim de Vries is not visible (at least not in her role as editor). I think this is because a distinction is being made between the story tellers (or authors in the wider sense of the word) on the one hand – those who should be visible and audible in the publication – and the publishers and editors on the other – those who work behind the scenes on the journal Bridging Humanities.

I find the distinction in this form questionable. It is based on procedures and standards of traditional academic publishing in peer reviewed journals which – I feel – are not suitable for digital, multimedia co-creation of knowledge. To be published in Bridging Humanities, stories must meet a number of criteria. One of these is that multimedia design is an essential part of the content (as, indeed, we saw in Dissenting Voices) and not merely an garment to nicely decorate it. Obviously, this design needs to meet the design standards and formats of Bridging Humanities. As a consequence, stories (publications) in Bridging Humanities will necessarily be a co-production of authors and journal staff. This again means that work done by the team of Bridging Humanities is part of the process of creating these stories. I feel this should be fully visible. A reflection on this part of the process (by Sijsma, De Vries and others of the team), but also by the story tellers, could be part of the final product. And to follow this line of reasoning a bit further: should not this reflection by the Bridging Humanities team also be submitted to the peer reviewers? To take yet another step: should not a reflection by the reviewers themselves be part of the process?

Of course, this raises all sorts of questions about ownership and independence. It is important to seriously consider these and to take and communicate a clear position. This is necessary for understanding the role of Bridging Humanities and for the expectations and mutual adjustments with authors and peer reviewers. Moreover, a substantive role of the journal/publisher, acknowledged and accepted by all, will also be necessary to meet the ambitions of Bridging Humanities.

A reflection by the editors on the collaboration with authors and peer reviewers would be interesting. Was it clear to the authors what was expected of them and how they were to meet these expectations? Did the peer reviewers have a clear picture of what and how they had to assess? Was their feedback useful to the authors and the Bridging Humanities team? Answers to these questions and a reflection on this part of the process is important to be able to deliver on the predicate of academic knowledge production.

  1. [ed.The author has a longstanding career in science policy and development cooperation and acted as secretary of the Dutch National Research Agenda (a set of national priorities and scientific questions that were developed in a participatory process). He was invited by the editorial committee to comment on the publication, shortly after publication.]
  2. [ed. Jan Pronk is a retired politician of the Dutch Labour Party (PVDA), who served three terms as Minister of Development Cooperation in the period 1973-1977 and 1989-1998.]
  3. [ed. Directorate-General for International Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs  responsible for development cooperation and SNV Netherlands Development Organisation in 1965 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as ‘Foundation of Netherlands Volunteers’).]
  4. [ed. The polarising ‘Zwarte Piet’ or literally ‘Black Pete’ debate focusses on the yearly Dutch holiday tradition of Sinterklaas late November/Early December, which activists and a growing part of the Dutch population equate with racism. The tradition holds that saint Sinterklaas, who arrives from Spain to deliver gifts to Dutch children, is accompanied by Black Petes, helpers in colourful clothes with black painted faces, curly hair and large red lips. To activists the character makes reference to the history of slavery and negatively stereotypes people of African descent. They have strongly protested against the tradition and requested to change the figure’s appearance, although this is rejected in many parts of the Netherlands. Among the activists that speak up to the tradition are descendants from former Dutch colonies, who feel that their perspectives on the colonial history are neglected. In 2014 a UN committee even called upon the Dutch government to take steps to amend the tradition of Zwarte Piet. The discussion receives international press coverage. See for instance: Micah Garen, Marie-Helene Carleton & Justine Swaab, Zwarte Piet: Black Pete is ‘Dutch racism in full display Al Jazeera, November 27, 2018.]
  5. [ed.Frank Boudewijn de Groot is a Dutch singer-songwriter was labeled as a protest singer, an image confirmed for the mainstream audience by the success of his song Welterusten Meneer de President (“Goodnight, Mister President”) on the Vietnam War, a song written with songwriter Lennaert Nijgh. Source: Wikipedia Boudewijn de Groot entry.]