Silence and the politics of compassion. Commemorating slavery in the Netherlands

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
Author:
Markus BalkenholMeertens Institute markus.balkenhol@meertens.knaw.nl

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Looking at the commemoration of slavery in the Netherlands, this article makes a twofold argument. First, my aim is to complicate the notions of historical silence, ‘erasure’ and ‘secrecy’ that have informed many post‐ and decolonial projects. I show that the violence and brutality of slavery are in some cases even showcased. The result is an often self‐congratulatory image of a humanism that is often seen as ‘typically’ Dutch. At the same time, the national slavery memorial has shown that engaging in a politics of compassion can offer ground to refashion post‐colonial futures. Here, humanism is neither accepted at face value nor discarded as damaged goods, but salvaged and held to its promise. Second, I analyse the politics of multiculturalism, and the related search for cultural essences in which ‘culture’ and ‘nation’ have turned into objects of love and anxiety. While analyses have rightly understood emotions such as compassion as neoliberal models of governance, I argue that such structures of feeling also have colonial roots. The highly affective politics of belonging and exclusion today can be more fully understood if their colonial roots are included in the analysis.

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