Thursday, December 22, 2005

Holland's Social Experiment: following the Dutch drug debate.

Recently I was fortunate enough to visit The Netherlands. My two weeks there was during second semester at University, and whilst there I needed to find and write about a topic for a feature article for a journalism subject I was doing. This is my article.

Like an indulgent, eccentric uncle, Amsterdam is a European city, where people who want to legally smoke cannabis can do so openly in one of Holland’s coffeeshops, much to the concern of the city’s surrounding neighbours. These neighbouring countries take a harder stance against drugs that is at odds with Holland’s social experiment, where the Dutch believe their lax attitude is more compassionate and a better way.
One of the first places many of Holland’s tourists visit is Amsterdam’s coffeeshops. Located along the city’s canals and narrow streets, they display a green and white sticker on their windows, indicating that inside you will find a hash or weed menu. However, you don’t really need to see these stickers to know that you can get high within Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, as the sweet, pungent aroma emitted from them is clue enough. Glancing through one of the hash menus, I found offerings such as “Hawaiian Haze”, “Juicy Fruit”, and “Purple Power”. There are pre-rolled joints, weed from Morocco, indoor plants, outdoor plants and marijuana dubbed either local or foreign.
According to a display at the Amsterdam History Museum (Historisch Museum), the Netherlands have decriminalised soft drugs since 1976. This means that in Holland a blind eye is turned to the sale and use of up to five grams of marijuana.
The display also includes a video, where an American accented panel of experts debate the merits of Holland’s drug policy, the amended Opium Act of 1976.
Pietr, who works at the History Museum thinks that the Dutch government is becoming increasingly conservative. “All the time medical reports are coming, saying that the use of cannabis is not good. Personally I do not like the smell. I hate the smell of smoking. It is everywhere. I do not like it”.
The smoky marijuana smell is indeed everywhere. This is particularly noticeable when zigzagging through pedestrians and the throng visiting coffeeshops, trying to locate the Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum, finally finding a doorway flanked by Marijuana plants and that distinctive odour. The man accepting Euros for entry into the museum was extremely cagey in answering any questions. Standing beside him was a belligerent American woman, puffing a joint, the marijuana smell emitted from the museum clearly coming from her. Declining even first name basis to be used, the man behind the counter kept trying to usher me towards the disorganised displays in an effort to answer my questions. The man at one point became irritated at my use of the word “legalised”. With a shake of his head and a deep frown, he emphasised that marijuana use is “tolerated” not legalised. From then on, in all my conversations regarding soft drug use, I made sure I used the word, tolerated instead. He told me that households are allowed five plants, and there is continual pressure from the United Nations to stop it. “We do not drink alcohol. We smoke”. With a shrug he continued, “Smoking can be bad for you. You can get addicted. It’s never written down when somebody dies using it”. Then, giving me his one and only smile, “if politicians were to smoke it, there would be less problems”.
Most of the Hemp Museum’s displays were propagandist. Lots of yellow and brown cutout newspaper articles taped along the walls, citing headlines of human rights and the drug war. There was a display about Pot Pride Marches that also included a poster of a marching chant: “We’re here, we’re high. Get used to it”.
A few doors down, at the Tiani Hemp shop, I spoke to Jorge, who was much more forthcoming than the man at the Hemp Museum. Jorge has owned his hemp shop for thirty years or more, selling all the hemp products associated with the drug, but not the drug itself. “The hemp is used for a lot”, he told me, “plastic, material, shirts, soap, rope, everything”. He nods in satisfaction. “The tobacco and plastic companies stopped production of hemp because of plastic competition”.
Jorge also thought that becoming addicted was not true. “I have smoked for thirty years. If you want to believe them…. I believe myself. Smoking has been happening for thousands of years. There’s Indian culture, Arabic, Latino, Indigenous. I think of it as a cure. People who have asthma; it opens their lungs”. Jorge is often asked for the drug itself, many tourists coming to the shop thinking they can get it here. He directs them to the numerous coffeeshops surrounding his establishment.
According to the Dutch Justice Ministry, coffeeshops numbered 1’179 in 1997, and this has dropped to 754 in 2003. Jorge is concerned about this. “Since the sixties people are making a living from this. Making money. They grow it in their own homes. Some people grow in special places, but the police catch them, so they have to grow in their homes. It’s a family affair”. Jorge explains to me that the government will not renew or issue new licences. Consequently there is no new coffeeshops opening. However, more hemp shops, like Jorge’s, are started. “If the owner dies they won’t renew. This is how they stop it. Coffeeshops are fighting this by becoming an association or cooperative”. Then he adds, “Politicians like to keep quiet because it brings tourists to Holland. Hotels are full. Everybody that is here is happy. Other countries have a higher percentage of violence. In England they drink alcohol, they become aggressive, they fight. Here they smoke; they want to make love. Other countries drug addicted people die on the street. Here people have somewhere to go”.
There is certainly an argument here. The Dutch have always reasoned that the coffeeshops allow their authorities to keep a close eye on cannabis use. Their policy also includes low threshold treatment. This means that those with a drug problem are encouraged to seek help, and Holland’s drug programs are designed so minimal paperwork is involved and minimal demands are made. The Centre for Drug Research, University of Amsterdam (CEDRO) contends that cannabis use is substantially lower than often assumed. An article from the Journal of Health and Social Policy, debates the Dutch drug policy and asks if it can be used as a model for America. The Netherlands and the USA being two countries at distinct opposite sides when it comes to drug use. The Netherlands support ‘harm reduction’ whilst America prefers ‘supply reduction’. The latter policy promotes reducing drugs, and enforces strict sanctions on those who do not. To the consternation of many of Holland’s critics, drug use has had a negligibly small increase since 1976. In other parts of Europe and also America, there has been much increase, despite prohibition.
Jorge also enthusiastically tells me about the Cannabis Cup. The Cannabis Cup has been awarded for the last sixteen years to someone or a company providing excellence in marijuana samples. When the Cannabis Cup event is taking place, there are many tours frequenting the coffeeshops. An event some tourists may not want to miss.
Most Dutch people seem to advocate Holland’s ‘social experiment’. Further afield, in the small town of Emmen, about three hours journey from Amsterdam, I meet the Boer family. Invited for a traditional meal, I enter their awe-inspiring home – a completely renovated Dutch farmhouse, hundreds of years old, but brought into the twenty-first century. The Boer family have converted the farmhouse into liveable conditions, but it still has its imposing thatched roof, and inside, the black misshapen beams with their patina of age. Even here, miles away from Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, this topic created much debate from nine people seated around the dinner table.
Marius Boer, the eldest son in his twenties says, “it’s a good thing, and it keeps away criminal things. When it is allowed it is controllable. To go under, it will not be. Trading is done at a reasonable level, the legal price goes down. What’s the difference between alcohol and hemp? It’s a soft drug”.
Marius’ parents, Peter and Karen Boer agree, Karen saying, “It must be free and allowed. Whatever you want. Also the hard drugs. Problem is solved, the price drops to nothing”.
Peter talks about the production of marijuana. “A lot of energy is put into the growing. A lot of countries are looking at how Holland controls its drugs. You can buy equipment for three or four thousand Euros, and make it back in a year growing”.
“Less than a year”, Marius interjects. Everyone around the table nods.
Peter continues. “A room, lamps, ventilation. Power companies can see power being used in the meters, they can come and close you down”. The Boer family tell of one of their neighbours close by. His thatched roof had no snow on it! His home had big gates and also big dogs! Everyone laughs at the visual of a house with no snow on its roof, due to the heat inside, growing marijuana plants.
Robert, another guest says, “We should tolerate it. But I’ve never tried it”. I turn to him surprised. Robert who has lived in Holland all his life had never tried marijuana? Is this unusual, I ask? He shrugs in answer. Peter answers for him, “When it’s not seen under the table you can control it. That’s the tactics here. Holland is united thinking the same thing. When people deal in the street it is frowned upon. Why sell drugs on the street if you can get it in the shops?” He looks at Robert, “because it’s not experimental anymore”.
I ask Karen and Natasha, another guest, how they feel about children and marijuana. Karen responds first, “I hate it”. Henk, Natasha’s husband tells me, “I hope not, that they will use drugs”. Natasha says, “I am afraid of it, that they will use drugs”. At this point I see natural parental concern. Even though Holland’s society is tolerant about drugs, there is still an instinctive worry about their children.
Jacqueline, Marius’ girlfriend gives her opinion here. “I think it has to do with your social life and your friends. When I was in school I wasn’t in a group that experimented with drugs. The friends I had were very close, from the age of four. We were always the same group doing other things”.
Karen tells us, “At school, policemen stand there during breaks so that dealers don’t come”. Everyone frowns at the thought of drug dealers in the street.
There is a powerful argument of economics that Peter contends, “coffeeshops are closing. Nobody is interested anymore. When there is too much supply the price drops. There will be a peak for a short while. There were three or four coffeeshops in Emmen, but now two are closing because there is no interest anymore”.
Back in Amsterdam, walking the city’s streets, I see people milling about a doorway. Realising they are just watching table dancers I continue on my way, the hoots of jocularity fading as I go. Later I see a bicycle tour. A group of girls are about to embark, donned with party hats and pretty clothes, here for a hen’s weekend, the bride-to-be’s last hoorah. I pass wild bucks parties, groups of people from all cultures, roaming the streets, some clearly worse for wear, away from the usual humdrum of their working lives. I think of Jorge’s words: the tourists come; the hotels are full. Everyone is here in this all-encompassing party city, which Amsterdam is known for.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What I've been reading lately: If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (a postmodern essay.)

To open a book is to invite the fictional world in. Readers always know when they are reading fiction. There are conventions and codes, an author to listen to, reading is a way to understand and think. The most challenging feature of postmodern writing is its insinuation of the fictionality of the world we live in. Readers are challenged when overt metafictional writers, such as Italo Calvino, choose to display the fictionality of their novels. This essay will focus on Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. It will explore metafiction, a type of postmodern writing and examine the conventions of fiction, deconstruction of language, the notion of an author and their precursors and the relationship between reading and writing. All this will reveal the fictionality within postmodern writing.

Italo Calvino is deliberate and determined to convey the notions and the intricacy in preparing a text. It is never forgotten that we are reading a book. There is an author, a scene set, a plot and characters to be met. Calvino intentionally allows the book’s contrivance to be seen. He asserts this from the very beginning in his opening chapter: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel” (Calvino, 1998, p.3), and later: “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph” (Calvino,1998, p.10).

Although we are reading, we are never directly able to read for ourselves, someone else reads each narrative and this allows Calvino to highlight the novel’s constructs and conventions. “We are never allowed even the illusion of direct access to these stories: they are all mediated, which is just another way of saying that they are fabricated” (Brink, 1998, p.317). Through the eyes of others such as, the narrator; professor Uzzi-Tuzzi; Lotaria and Silas Flannery, we are made aware that this is a book and it has been made. Furthermore, we are told that even these readings have been read before, translated by the infamous Ermes Marana. The novel has been previously read, previously interpreted and constantly mediated.
Jacques Derrida, a postmodern theorist, examined the use of language. He saw language as deconstructed, disorderly and unstable. Language viewed this way allows for interpretation. Disorderly and unstable means that when language is used to represent, to each person that language can be different, therefore destabilised and unstructured. An author may have the best intentions to use language to represent one particular view, but this may not always be the case. Calvino emphasises this further in his novel.

“[The] act of reading…becomes simultaneously an act of radical destabilisation of language. Each of the readers in Calvino's novel reads the ‘same’ novel, yet experiences it as a ‘different’ novel; the whole process of reading unsettles fixed meanings” (Brink, 1998, p.314).

Derrida also used the theatre as an analogy to writing, to convey this idea.
“[An] author-creator who, absent and from afar, is armed with a text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulates the time or meaning of representation…He lets representation represent him through representatives, directors or actor, enslaved interpreters who…more or less directly represent the thought of the ‘creator’” (Ritzer, 2003, p. 584).

Similarly in fiction, language represents the thoughts of the creator and the reader is the interpreter. This is an important concept in postmodern writing. Also is the notion of previously read, previously interpreted, mediated, represented and then interpreted again and again. It is the idea of precursors. An author has read before. An author allows these ideas to influence their writing. The ideas are consequently mediated or represented and the reader, in turn, re-interprets these ideas. If the reader is also a writer, the cycle continues.
Calvino's If on a winter’s night a traveller uses the premise of precursors and portrays it through his novel by different chapters. The “novel offers an increasingly, dizzying experience of reading, with each chapter acting as supplement to what has gone before and as a preface to the next” (Brink, 1998 p. 320). Precursors are important to the idea of the author when it is explored. It questions the notion of ideas mediated, authors influenced, akin to Derrida’s notion of representation.

Calvino uses his character Marana to display this, where he deems authors irrelevant. (Calvino, 1998, p. 101) As if to say it is everyone’s and anyone’s idea.
“Marana often misrepresents what he sends to publishers, submitting manuscripts incorrectly titled and attributed and sometimes passing off insignificant works as major works. Marana is a kind of anti-authorial terrorist" (Gaggi, 1997, pp 56-57).

Michel Foucault examined the idea of author-function. Foucault, another postmodern theorist, looked at the way writers would seek to write what they believed to be an individual voice. However, Foucault asserts that the reading of any given text allows for inevitable interpretation. Multiple readings, changing an individual voice into a fractured voice:
“that the author-function is a construction that imposes ideological constraints upon the reading of a body of texts identified as being by a certain ‘author’…the subject of the author in particular – is a product of discourse rather than the origin of discourse” (Gaggi, 1997, p. 57).

A good illustration of this is Calvino’s idea of two writers, each struggling to write, and while imagining the other writes better, each begins to write as they imagine the other would, and consequently they write the same book.
Calvino goes on to include computers in his novel that are working to emulate the work of famous writers. Here he is “demystifying literature and the author” (Gaggi, 1997, p. 62). Calvino’s novel shows that an author's own discourse is a product and cannot be described as original, he shows it to be ‘fictional’.
Calvino allows the authorship of his own novel to be ambiguous. Calvino himself, a real author, allows himself to be a character. This questions the idea of what has been written and by whom? Marana’s deliberate attempt’s to steal, forge and misrepresent texts ensures that “reading will be freed from the constraints imposed on it by the aura of authorship” (Gaggi, 1997, p. 57). Roland Barths, also a postmodernist, asserts that in writing there is the ‘death of the author’. “The more the author appears, the less he or she exists. The more the author flaunts his or her presence in the novel, the more noticeable is his or her absence outside it” (Waugh, 1984, p. 134). Certainly Calvino is doing just this in his novel, and by doing so he is breaking the conventions of fiction writing.

“I have – no, the author has – been circling around the feminine presence, for several pages you have been expecting this female shadow to take shape the way female shadows take shape on the written page, and it is your expectation, reader, that drives the author towards her” (Calvino, 1998, p. 20).

If on a winter’s night a traveller is metafiction. Fiction about fiction, stories within stories. Linda Hutcheon writes about metafiction and she calls this narcissistic text. She talks about reading narrative and expectations a reader has. When these expectations are not met, she says writers know full well that they are overtly being self-conscious in their writing and the subverting and breaking of novelistic codes show this. (Hutcheon, 1984, p. 139) Thus far, Calvino has unsettled the author, the novel’s conventions and used the notion of precursors and this easily falls into Hutcheon’s theory of narcissistic text.

The book does not conform to a linear fashion. Instead Calvino allows it to be multi-linear. One story or chapter can lead to the next, but it can also lead to others, all at the same time and even re-trace itself back. An example of this is when the book’s narrator goes in search of the famous author Silas Flannery. Flannery describes his ideal reader, clearly evoking the character of Ludmilla. This image of Ludmilla connects her to the reading of all the previous chapters as well as future one’s and also within Flannery’s own writing. Indeed, Ludmilla’s character is a good example of portraying the novel as being multi-diagetic, where “stories successfully frame other stories often to the point of infinite regress (Cotrupi, 1991, p. 2 of 7)

As well as being multi-diagetic it has been argued that Ludmilla personifies the male reader’s erotic desire. There are three quests running alongside each other. The quest for Ludmilla; the quest for the desired perfect reading experience and the narrator’s quest to find his elusive narrative. Reading is spurred on by the desire to see what comes next. Ludmilla’s character is a metaphor for sexual conquest. (Cotrupi, 1991)
Calvino elaborates on the different types of readers. Ludmilla and Lotaria are contrasted.
“Ludmilla, the named and described female reader, clearly personifies the ideal reader in pointed contrast to Lotaria’s pseudoscientific, ideologically motivated, devalued, and degenerated readings of the texts” (Cotrupi, 1991, p. 3 of 7).
Further, Ludmilla talks of there being a boundary line for the reader when she refuses to accompany the narrator to the publishers. Ludmilla prefers to be just a reader on a quest within the fictional world only.
“There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want (Calvino, 1998, p. 93).

Calvino’s manipulation lays bare all the literal conventions of the novel and reveals its interior constructs, and also its exterior constructs. Many protagonists in the novel belong to the literary world, the realm of books. The writer; the reader; the publisher; the narrator; the bookshop owner; literary agents; the academic; the librarian; the plagiarist and the translator. He has incorporated all these into his storytelling. Writing fiction and the ‘real’ players all at once.

“Through these innovations Calvino has added another layer to the semantic density of fiction, incorporating within the narrative text not only an awareness of its own status as literary artefact or verbal construct but also an explicit self-engagement with its role as literary text, as the locus of human creative, perceptual and hermeneutic activities” (Cotrupi, 1991, p. 2 of 7)

Calvino exposing literary construction allows the book to be an overt metafictional novel, a narcissistic text. Calvino subverts the notion of the author, and deems them irrelevant. Where writers can write the exact same thing, but readers can read the exact same thing differently. For Calvino’s metafictional novel to succeed, he must alleviate the void between the fiction of the book and the real world. The reader must never forget that they are reading a book. Calvino does this by the ever-present reader reading over the shoulder of another. When a novel is opened and narrative begins, readers have expectations, but postmodern writing challenges this. Italo Calvino has succeeded in insinuating fictionality into his writing.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Feedback on my feature article

I'm very excited!! I received an email from my lecturer for my journalism subject. This semester one of my assignments was to write a feature article, and because I was fortunate enough to accompany my husband to Holland I decided to write about the drug debate.

Her email reads: If you are receiving this email it means you wrote a fantastic feature article. In some cases I have made recommendations for you to publish in a different magazine/newspaper in my comments, but your article would certainly be of interest to Tabula Rasa [student magazine] as well.

When I read this I felt that warm fuzzy glow, the kind when you have succeeded in doing something well. Note she used the word "fantastic"!! I do plan to post the article in the coming weeks. There's nothing like the feeling of getting positive feedback from someone. It really does make all the difference.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...