I remember the first Dutch word that really affected me, stuck with me, didn’t let me go.
It was “vrij-blij-vend” which translates into English as “without obligation”. I wasn’t sure what it meant back then even after many explanations, but I do remember how embodied or actually disembodied it made me feel.
My art teachers used it in art school to comment on my work in the yearly evaluations we would undergo as art students in the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. It would usually be something like “sure, your work is great, the images you make are interesting, they make us curious, but”, and it was a big BUT, “your work is too vrijblijvend“.
I studied in the photography department of the art academy which back then was known for giving students an either/or option of either developing into commercial fashion photographers or documentary reportage-like journalists. Those whose work didn’t match neatly into these two very strict categories ended up being labelled as “poetic” or “autonomous” or in my case “vrijblijvend” and were encouraged to join another art school such as the Rietveld academy in Amsterdam which were known to be more “free” or “autonomous” or God forbid “conceptual”.
Rather than giving up and packing my bags to another art school I solved this aporia by going to classes of both streams – the commercial fashion photography classes and the documentary photography classes. My teachers became even more confused but as an eager, over-motivated, (and paying as a non-EU) student they couldn’t stand in my way. I learned to live with the label of the student without obligation and kept on my juvenile path of doing “my own thing” even if this path was most of the time not understood by my teachers.
More than fifteen years down the line the word “vrijblijvend” still very much resonates with me, it makes me itch, it bothers me and to a certain extent makes me angry. Angry not because I don’t understand what it means or can’t identify with it. Today this word makes me angry because I feel that there is a certain hidden fear of the other or the unknown behind it.
The Caribbean writer, philosopher, poet, and literary critic Édouard Glissant writes in his Poetics of Relation (1990) the following:
“If we examine the process of ‘understanding’ people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency” (189-190).
Arguing against the grain of total transparency which according to Glissant is aimed at grasping and hence a masterful controlling of something or someone, Glissant prefers the poetic power of what he calls the right to opacity:
“The opaque is not the obscure, though it is possible for it to be so and be accepted as such. It is that which cannot be reduced. (…) This same opacity is also the force that drives every community” (191).
Reflecting back on my encounter with the word “vrijblijvend” I understand that there is also a hidden meaning or issue of trust embedded within it. That which is not easily understood or seems to be without obligation or commitment (to which standard?), cannot be easily trusted as their actions may be unexpected or ungraspable.
Today, as a PhD candidate at Utrecht University where I explore the role of embodiment in knowledge-based organizations, and as a lecturer and researcher at The Hague University of Applied Sciences where I teach critical thinking and am part of the change management research group, I wear my “vrijblijvend” label proudly. As an undergraduate student and teacher, I am happy (and proud) to have acquired a wide and interdisciplinary background in cognitive sciences, psychology, art, cultural analysis and international business education. I do not feel 100% committed or obliged to any one of these building blocks in my education simply because I don’t understand education in such a narrow and rigid manner. Education, be it art education, business education or natural science education, is not something students should be obliged or committed to in the manner in which a master or teacher can understand or grasp what they are doing at each and every moment. Education should be something that makes their imaginative and intellectual wings spread in a vrij (free) and blij (happy) way.
Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, Translated by Betsy Wing, University of Michigan Press, 1990