Culture Wars: Imposing cultural white space
Chris Gilligan writes in 'The creation of Cool Caledonia' that 'there is little beyond tartanry, haggis, shortbread, whiskey and Irn Bru which can be definitively claimed as distinctly Scottish (and even the distinctiveness of some of these is open to question)' (LM, November 1999). To which one can only respond 'an fhirinn an aghaidh an t-Saoghail!'. As there is nothing distinctive about Scottish culture, including presumably language, this will need no translation for LM readers. Gilligan's outlining of what he believes to be the defining features of Scottish identity are trivial, insulting and commodified examples, which have been resolutely rejected or vilified in Scottish cultural writing over the past 30 years, as part of a process of self-examination that has been integral to political renewal.
While we should guard against movements of civic democracy turning towards nationalism, we should also be wary of universalism stifling cultural expression. There is a danger that we mistake bland postmodern globalism with a universalist cultural ethic. If metropolitan England is consumed by cultural white space, it would do well to avoid imposing this on others. This projection may come from three specific strands: the left tradition of internationalism; the confused morass which is contemporary British/English culture; and perhaps also the modernist project which LM still signifies.
The very complexity of the work of writers like David Greig, Don Paterson or AL Kennedy makes the accusation of nationalist naivety a nonsense. Each explores his or her theme and world from an individual view, but it's one which is informed (like it or not) within a cultural context. They are historical testimony to a contemporary truth - that your own culture is often a springboard towards internationalism and the appreciation of other people's culture. Burns' 'For a' that and a' that' or Hamish Henderson's 'Freedom come all yea' are hymns to the very socialist universalism to which many of us aspire.
We have experienced what Murdo Macdonald has described as a 'mislaid history' - one in which much of our own culture has been deemed unimportant. Unsurprisingly this has often been the history and cultural artefacts that are the most radical, challenging and provocative. In fact this mislaid history is much of the material that is distinctly Scottish, such as the Democratic Intellect, the tradition of dissident writing and internationalism and visions of language - all which is expressed by so many contemporary Scottish artists and writers today.
['An fhirinn an aghaidh an t-Saoghail!' means 'The truth against the world', and is a Scottish saying often associated with the 1820 uprising.]
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000