The Assassination of Theo van Gogh

From Social Drama to Cultural Trauma

The Assassination of Theo van Gogh

Politics, History, and Culture

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Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: Published: August 2008

Author: Ron Eyerman

Cultural Studies, European Studies, Sociology

In November 2004, the controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed on a busy street in Amsterdam. A twenty-six-year-old Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent shot van Gogh, slit his throat, and pinned a five-page indictment of Western society to his body. The murder set off a series of reactions, including arson against Muslim schools and mosques. In The Assassination of Theo van Gogh, Ron Eyerman explores the multiple meanings of the murder and the different reactions it elicited: among the Amsterdam-based artistic and intellectual subculture, the wider Dutch public, the local and international Muslim communities, the radical Islamic movement, and the broader international community. After meticulously analyzing the actions and reputations of van Gogh and others in his milieu, the motives of the murderer, and the details of the assassination itself, Eyerman considers the various narrative frames the mass media used to characterize the killing.

Eyerman utilizes theories of social drama and cultural trauma to evaluate the reactions to and effects of the murder. A social drama is triggered by a public transgression of taken-for-granted norms; one that threatens the collective identity of a society may develop into a cultural trauma. Eyerman contends that the assassination of Theo van Gogh quickly became a cultural trauma because it resonated powerfully with the postwar psyche of the Netherlands. As part of his analysis of the murder and reactions to it, he discusses significant aspects of twentieth-century Dutch history, including the country’s treatment of Jews during the German occupation, the loss of its colonies in the wake of World War II, its recruitment of immigrant workers, and the failure of Dutch troops to protect Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.


“A brilliant little gem of a work. . . .” — Jeffrey C. Alexander, British Journal of Sociology

“Exceedingly readable and rousing. . . This book is to be highly recommended, especially for researchers and students desperately trying to keep pace with the remarkable insights being generated by Eyerman and his colleagues at Yale. This well-crafted book repays close reading and will no doubt stimulate further research.” — Eric Taylor Woods, Social Identities

“In this part crime thriller, part cultural theory exploration, Eyerman examines possible explanations for the murder. . . . In an interesting twist, Eyerman lends much discussion as to whether to classify the murder as a hate crime or as a media performance, moral panic or an artistic transgression on account of the sheer media attention and coverage generated. It is in the intersection of race relations and artistic interest that a social drama quickly becomes a cultural trauma and vice-versa. As such, Eyerman employs a range of analytic conventions through which to interpret the assassination – a performance, a mass media event, and a social/cultural drama.”
Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World

“This volume is an important addition to current debates about multiculturalism and religious and cultural diversity. It challenges common-sense readings of the key questions and is suggestive of the need for more in-depth empirical research as well as the need for theoretical reflection and debate. More importantly it suggests that the current preoccupations and concerns about the limits and contradictions of multiculturalism may also provide a basis for more serious and nuanced political debate about how we can best move forward.” — John Solomos, Ethnic and Racial Studies

“Ron Eyerman has combined his two exquisite skills of an exceptionally thorough researcher and a consummate theorist to produce a uniquely enlightening study of the intricate mechanism which—in our times of the frailty of social setting, acute public uncertainty, and heightened susceptibility to moral panics—leads to the production of ‘traumatic events,’ subsequently deployed as catalysts in the reshaping of public memory and reinterpretation of collective identities. A masterly study of one of the most neuralgic phenomena in contemporary culture, bound to inform and direct our efforts to comprehend its dynamics.” — Zygmunt Bauman, Professor Emeritus, University of Leeds and University of Warsaw

“Ron Eyerman has produced a theoretically sophisticated analysis of the murder of Theo van Gogh, evoking themes of globalization, immigration, free speech, law and justice, gender relations, journalism and the media, political tolerance, and multiculturalism, all of which are at the center of debates in the contemporary social sciences. This is an important book.” — Robin Wagner-Pacifici, author of The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ron Eyerman is Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. He is the author of Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity and Between Culture and Politics: Intellectuals in Modern Society; a co-author of Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century; and a co-editor of Myth, Meaning, and Performance: Toward a New Cultural Sociology of the Arts.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

1. Assassination as Public Performance: The Murder of Theo van Gogh 1

2. Mediating Social Drama 24

3. Perpetrators and Victims 56

4. The Clash of Civilizations: A Multicultural Drama 102

5. A Dutch Dilemma: Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Multicultural Tolerance 141

6. Cultural Trauma and Social Drama 161

Notes 175

Bibliography 203

Index 215
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4406-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4387-5
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