After a week or so of trans-media stramash, and just in time for the Xmas shut-down, I've added my 3000-words worth to the Alasdair Gray "settlers and colonists" debate. It also attempts to fold in the artists' protest against Creative Scotland, as part of the same mighty realignment between arts and society, in the walk towards the independence referendum.
In my exasperation at the role that a financially-imploding, and partisanly-edited Scottish press is playing in our independence referendum, I urge anyone reading this to respond entirely at their own pace, length and level of discourse. I feel huge sympathy with Scott Hames, editor of the Unstated volume that has been pushing debate on these matters for a few months now. His call for a discursive moment "free from a noise and enforced concision of the media debate" must lie like an old oatcake in his mouth now.
In any case, all comments, further utilisations, and repostings more than welcome.
The Net, The Self and the Trouble With Scotland: on Alasdair Gray, and other matters cultural and political
The press-and-broadcast furore around Alasdair Gray’s essay “Settlers and Colonists”, from Scott Hames’s volume Unstated: Scottish Writers on Independence, has brought the complex relationship between Scottish national culture, and Scottish national independence, to the fore again.
For those of us who have operated with a default model of how the two elements related - forged out of our reading, our activism and creation, our voluminous blethering over the last few decades - it’s been a needed shaking of the shoulders.
This seems to have been the purpose of Unstated. “The politics of Scottish devolution, and the contemporary debate over political independence, are self-evidently far less radical, passionate and imaginative”, writes Hames in his perceptive introduction, “than the politics of the writers most often invoked as symbols of their ‘cultural’ rootedness and legitimacy”.
And before we get to Gray’s piece, it’s worth noting the ideological settling-point of the majority of these writers. The span (and I won’t mention names: buy it and figure it out yourself) roughly stretches from the anti-NATO, “old-Labour” end of Scottish social-democracy, through to explicit socialist, anarchist, eco-militant and even communist stances.
Overarching almost of all of them is a republican distaste for monarchy, an even bigger loathing for financial elites, a commitment to sustainable, small-is-beautiful economics, and a general defense of subsidized arts as a necessary, civilizing counterweight to commerce and marketing. With a few interesting exceptions, most are clearly going to be “Yes” voters.
From this sample - one academic’s selection, and hardly scientific - it seems to me that most Scottish writers would find themselves happily voting for a Front-de-Gauche or Syriza style Left-Green political alliance, come the first post-independence Holyrood General Election in 2016, or thereabouts. (Or perhaps, and less exhaustingly, a Scottish Labour Party finally awake to its historic opportunity). Beneath the firestorms about cultural identity and institutional leadership, this is a political constituency worth noting.
But it’s the Gray essay - its title, its argument, its usage by a headline-hungry, financially-insecure Scottish media - that has turned a worthwhile exercise (like many of its kind over the last few decades of Scottish letters) into the spark-point for an increasingly darkening public debate.
I will confess to a long-standing aversion to Alasdair Gray’s non-fiction prose. The simplicity and clarity of language that is such a perfect vehicle for his teeming imaginative inner world, which gives his monsters and milieus such a mythic and hypnotic power, is sometimes too simple for his political and cultural arguments. The opening sentence is a prime example:
A Scottish wordsmith [no reference given] said, ‘Outgoers and incomers made, make every land’. Yes. Both kinds can be divided into Settlers and Colonists.
It’s at the very least debatable that the constitution of national communities can be divided into “outgoers and incomers”, and then each of those into “Settlers and Colonists”. This is the kind of fable-like antinomy that Gray might set up at the beginning of one of his “Unlikely Stories” - an antinomy that would then be troubled and deconstructed as the characters follow their quirky path.
But as the premise for a categorical public argument about the nature of cultural leadership is Scotland, it’s a crude opposition from the start. One gets the distinct sense, not that Gray has rattled this off, but that he’s let himself pursue a juicy metaphor into an empirical and historical reality, and was unwilling to let go when it compelled certain turns of his argument.
What’s thorniest about Gray’s piece is the way that it presumes a smooth continuity between centuries of Scotland’s fitful, uneasy existence in the Union - in which one might easily identify periods in which the harsh language of internal colonisation and settlement would be all too relevant - and the Scotland of the last few decades. This is a Scotland as equally defined by hypermodernity - the explosions of media, computation and digital networks, lifestyle consumerism, the globalised mobility of financial, labour and talent markets - as anything more conventionally historic.
So when Gray makes canonical lists of past Scottish dramatists, writers and artists - those he identifies as being beneath the radar of the “colonising” arts director - what he’s actually doing is confronting the hypermodern with the claims of national-cultural history. No, says Gray, not everything can get caught up in the whirl - can be regarded as just one among many elements that are “interesting” to “programme” or “curate” into our “cultural industry”. In any case, to hang on too tightly to one or other national canon would make you ill-fitted to compete in the global careers-market of cosmopolitan arts programming.
We should be clear, though. This isn’t some minor recruitment preference, the parameters of a job description that can be easily tweaked. The underlying dilemmas are deep and systemic. In the late 90s, the Catalonian-born urbanist Manuel Castells talked about how 21st century society can be understood as organised around the poles of “the Net” and “the Self”.
On one side, a hypertext of culture, and a networked form of orgainisation, that shakes up all hierarchies, whether they be institutional or cultural (hello all newspapers). And on the other, a need to find a secure ground or identity in the face of this maelstrom: a collective story that makes sense of who one is, and who your comrades or compatriots are.
Castells wants the poles to work together, ideally. If untrammelled on each side, we have the heedless tyranny of computerised, semi-automatic capital, versus the defensive xenophobia of Golden Dawn - and there’s only one endpoint for that stand-off.
We perhaps see, in the Occupy, indignacios and Arab Spring movements (to some degree the second Obama victory, and maybe the SNP 2011 victory too) a way in which Net and Self can complement each other, as social media matures and extends - becoming a tool for a new style of active worker-citizenship, for example.
Mike Small’s essay in Unstated - and indeed his whole field of practice, from the Fife Diet to the blog Bella Caledonia and his tactical suggestions for Yes Scotland - shows how what Castells now calls “mass self-communication” might manifest itself in Scottish activism.
Yet there are many poignancies to consider here. To be honest, there’s one obvious way to commensurate the Net and the Self - the crazy hypermodern world, and the intimate call of our identity. And that’s to go down the nation-branding, arts-meets-tourism-meets-development route, partly pursued by Creative Scotland - and which was part of the objection from the “artists’ letter” against CS’s management style of Creative Scotland, which led to Dixon’s and Dhupa’s resignations.
Yes, among the general objections to an over-zealous bureaucracy and “business-speak” of projects, there was a line about “lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture” (the letter finally composed, it is reported, by David Greig, who surely holds the poise of history and hypertext as well any makar in the country).
But in resetting the relationship between arts and their agencies, we need to clearly assess the recent past. For example, do we regard the Scottish Government’s support of the New York run of The National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch as, per se, a pernicious instrumentalisation of a subtle art-form - aesthetic dissent turned into sophisticated national marketing? Or might there be - at least occasionally - some alignment between an artistic enterprise firing on all cylinders, and a government strategy of public diplomacy and soft power, that promotes critical intelligence as a national asset? (Never mind the objections that Black Watch all too easily allows itself to be deployed in such strategies).
“Turn yourself into a franchise like Cirque Du Soleil” - the semi-apocryphal suggestion from the nameless official to the outraged producer that seems to have kicked off the protest - is not going to win over any artist worth their “creative disloyalty”, in Richard Holloway’s words. But that fact that cosmocratic rent-a-execs turned a tin-ear towards Scottish creative sensibilities shouldn’t, in my view, unravel everything about Creative Scotland’s raison d’etre. It should still try to offer new fields of activity for our makars to play in, whether that be tourism or urban development or new technological platforms, if they saw the opportunity.
Perhaps I speak from my own biography as a commercial and political artist too much. But for me, it’s not wrong for artists to think of their social utility - of ways they can inspire other, more ground-down sectors of society, by the exemplar of their energy, creativity and commitment. Particularly within a national gestalt which intrinsically values them for who they are.
My judging of the Creative Places awards for Creative Scotland over the last two years have thrown up more than a few inspiring examples of artists trying to take locality-oriented art practice to the next level of organisation and effectiveness. And there are other frontiers to this - systemic questions about the role of arts and culture in a truly sustainable, post-growth, peace-oriented nation - which many of Hames' contributors seem more than up for exploring.
But in this tension between our historic identity and hypermodernity, it would be wrong to cast the Scottish “Self” in all this as just being about a defensive, surly resistance. A deeper consideration of the pressures of history can explain, I think, why a crude language of “Settler” and “Colonist” might emerge in the discourse of our most capacious imagineer.
It’s worth noting that Gray’s isn’t the only stop-halt! request in Unstated. Poet Don Paterson’s essay makes roughly the same objection as Gray about arts leadership in Scotland, upbraiding
the adolescent, craven and nervous recruitment of non-Scots residents to the most culturally sensitive positions in the national arts.. Regardless of their expertise, how can anyone who has not lived here for some time - who does not know our complex history, who has no first hand experience of the psychological make-up of the citizenry, who is not familiar with the work of our leading artists and writers - possibly react to our cultural biosphere in a way that will not cariacature it, elide it, or reinvent the wheel?
In his grandiloquent objection to the very idea of Creative Scotland, Paterson reveals a preferred institution: a Scottish Academy of Letters. In this, a peer-selected group of our brightest and best writers are unconditionally supported to do what they do best (ie, write), rather than second-guess arts bureaucrats by filling in forms on “cross-platform projects”. (His gag on "the haiku shaved into the dog's arse" sums that up perfectly).
So between Gray’s lament for a National Theatre of Scotland that might properly honour national theatrical history, and Paterson’s desire for literary institutions that sound like they belong more to the mitteleuropa of the late 20th century than the meltdown of 21st, we are listening to a large historical failure announce itself. That is: the absence, as Tom Nairn has been pointing out for forty years, of our formative moment of early 20th-century cultural-meets-political nationalism - the active forging of the nation, through language and culture, that typified Irish and Norwegian national liberation. And by association, the solid continuities of education and institution which would have supported and amplified that, over a century of sovereign development.
To be even a short-stop tourist in Norway, for example - to cover the quintet of Munch, Vigeland, Ibsen, Grieg and Nobel in the wide streets of Oslo - is to marvel not just at the coherence of their early 20thC nationalist moment, but also the universalism they strained for, as they pieced together a Norwegian identity from the fiords, the writers, the landscape. In the Edvard Grieg museum, his quotes ring out: “My view is that, just as human beings are both individual and social, so the artist is both national and cosmopolitan!” The Vigeland sculpture park is an extraordinary display of physical humanism - a people monumentally evoked in every possible variation of themselves, accessible to Oslo citizens in a lunch-time stroll.
Scotland missed out on that moment, caught up in the machinery and administration of Union and Empire as we were at the time. (Indeed, our lasting contribution to world thought, the Scottish Enlightenment, was a desire to hymn a universalist cast of mind, as Nairn has written, in order to fulfill our function as exemplary Unionists). But as Hames says, citing Nairn, we did retain a grizzled, angry, somewhat neurotic “thistle patch” of Scottish resources - battered linguistic traditions, part-autonomous legal, religious and educational systems, and disparate “accents of the mind”.
And it is this thistle patch that we have brought with us - somewhat gimcrack, the gaps sometimes miraculously patched-over, a swaying structure moving forward on squeaky wheels - to our current, momentous political moment. Do you want to see the thistle patch in physical form? Go and visit the artists’ stones on the Canongate Wall of the Holyrood parliament: rocky, enduring little fragments of hard-won wisdom and lyricism (but which manages, as Hames points out, to spell Alasdair Gray’s name wrong).
And here’s another poignancy about this debate. Modern Scottish writers, out of all the artforms, are beset with anxiety about the difficulty of retrieving a national voice from the fractured continuties of the last two centuries, never mind holding it together in the frazzling hypertext of the present. But their stylistic response has not been, in the main, that of a grim realism - holding language down, policing an official style so that a Scottish identity and experience can be defined and protected, in safe and robust textual vessels.
Quite the opposite: the continuing second Scottish literary renaissance - Morgan, Kelman, Leonard, Lochhead, Galloway, Warner, Smith, Jamie, Paterson, Crumey, Aberdein, Bissell, and of course Alasdair Gray - have been relentless experimenters, stylistic radicals. They have allowed the surface and structure of their prose to open up, mutate and intensify, in order to capture - in often sublime acts of poiesis - as many of the fragments of Scottish contemporary life (yes, containing history as well as hypertext) as they could. Literary style could hardly be more liberal, more embracing of human difference, than contemporary Scottish letters.
So we need to grapple with the complex reality of the militancy of an Alasdair Gray or a James Kelman. In their fiction, they express a powerful commitment to literary form that has ambitions, via modernism and postmodernism, to capture the richness and polyvalence of experience and reality. Yet this is in part to rectify a historical absence - the well-formed small European nation, and its consequent cultural weight and momentum - by sheer, momentous stylistic effort.
And this is hard work. Perhaps, sometimes, just too hard. My favourite intellectual in Scotland, over my last three decades of adult engagement with ideas in this country, is historian Christopher Harvie, by a kilometre of tramway track. But could a prose style ever more anxiously embody the desire to reunite the totality of Scottish experience, history, ideas and culture, manically connecting everything to everything else - beset with an underlying neurosis that the whole business might not ultimately hang together?
So gather up the protests against Creative Scotland, and the range of complaints and critiques in Unstated, and to me they’re all of a piece. What we’re hearing is the voice of a cultural community all too eager to bring their best to the commonweal of Scotland - but frustrated, for both immediate and deeply historical reasons, at the nature of the institutional support for their activity. The insult of “brand-it-like-Cirque-du-Soleil” was added to the long-term injuries of trying to do resonant Scottish art, in the networked frenzy of the present and the patchy tapestry of the past. So at one point, large numbers of them snapped, some of great stature, and in a number of whip-lashing directions.
Well then. Now what?
Let’s at least note, in passing, that there are commercial artists for whom the spongy palimpsest of Scottish cultural history provides easy content for the hypermodern marketplace, as more than a few of the Unstated essays note. The Hollywood fundamentalism of Gibson’s Braveheart; the Highland ”colonised by wankers” episode in Welsh’s Trainspotting, the survival of demotic Scots through the Comedy Unit’s tv productions (from Rab C to Limmy), the comix titans like Mark Millar and Grant Morrison lacing Caledonia into their blockbusters; all the way up to Pixar’s Brave. Kailyard 2.0, 3.0, 4.0... (Jings, there might even be a few America-overdetermined popular musicians who can’t keep national references out of their Steely-Dan-isms...)
Perhaps what Creative Scotland got wrong was to take those who happily ply their genres and formats in the commercial marketplace - though often trying to interlace as much subtlety into their audiences’ standardized expectations as they can - and suggest that their endeavours were a model for every other artist. The classical and the “lively” arts can live together - but as a practitioner of the latter, I want, need and would defend publicly-funded spaces of pure creative freedom in the cultural diet of the country.
But finally, let us - and by “us”, I mean those who feel they have responsibility and power to make the next two years go well and healthily, in arts, politics and the media - understand as sensitively as possible where Scotland is at the moment; the strains and pressures it puts us all under; the missteps that are only stumbles in a much bigger ceilidh. Alasdair Gray remains our genius, but we should forgive him for pushing that bit too far to defend the nation he has done so much to bring up to its present state of global readiness, by the sheer cosmic capacity of his prose.
My favourite line from the Unstated collection comes in the final essay from poet and critic Christopher Whyte - 40 years a “Yes” voter, but also happy to throw himself to the corners of Europe, in search of art and life. “What matters is not complaining what was done to us”, writes Whyte, “but working out what it is up to us to do”. He’s right. But as we gather our energies for construction, we should spare some volts of it for compassion too.
We are still working in the early days of a better nation - with the next step, as Gray recently amended it for the glories of Glasgow's Hillhead subway, to work in the early days of a better world. We gather up our argumentation in our arms, arrange it for our calm and collective contemplation, and having learned our lessons, get back to creating. We’ve stated the unstated. Now for new statements; and then what remains unstated in those; and then, the next round again. Conducted in the wide, open spaces of Scottish arts, letters and culture. Where progress is always onwards, and sideways.