Political Unreason → Aesthetic Reason → Part 1
Posted on September 16, 2012
Try as I might, I can’t settle with some of the surface arguments of the anti-independence campaign, and it won’t be just me. For as many affected by the affliction of caring, the unsettledness might play into the hands of the independence narrative – without it leading to too much of a testing of the under-the-surface thinking of that campaign, granted, and that will be to the chagrin of those unsettlers who have important questions for the independencers to answer. This situation has something to do with a particularly expedient and, I think, irritating argument on the part of the anti-independence voices. It is an argument which tries hard to mask its homespun political face, adopting (paradoxically, therefore) a concernedness for expansiveness in political behaviour and collectiveness in political solutions.
The argument runs like this: it is not good for Scotland and Scottish politics to spend so long considering Scotland and Scottishness by way of the referendum question because to do so is to make Scottish politics small and, by extension, to inhibit Scotland’s ability to make a contribution beyond its boundaries. The argument has been recently put by East Lothian MSP Iain Gray in The Scotsman – ‘Limited by Scottishness‘ (Wednesday 12th September). Gray’s conclusion builds on author Wole Soyinka’s notion that a tiger just gets on with being a tiger unburdened by the kind of self-reflectiveness that might bedevil us pathetic0poetic human beings. With a plaintiveness admirable in a man of pure action, Gray writes:
I long for the day when Scottish politics is once again something other than referendum-shaped. Then, sighting their legitimate big prey of prosperity, equality and social justice, our political tigers will at last stop discussing their own tigritude, and just pounce.
These thoughts were upon Gray during the Edinburgh Book Festival. Gordon Brown was appearing the same day as Gray, but Gray was embarrassed to inform a Nigerian author also present that Brown was to speak about the independence debate. Gray’s contention – ‘Scottish independence is a big question, but our obsession with it is making our politics small’.
The literary context was deployed to assist the argument. The Book Festival had earlier played host to a debate on National Literature, and opposing positions were expressed. For writers like Ewan Morrison and Alan Bissett, their output is validated by being reflexively of and about ‘Scottish’, and both are happy to say as much publicly. To contribute to a National Literature in that way is for them a post-colonial contribution to the deconstruction of imperialist legacies. Irvine Welsh, however much he may share Morrison’s and Bissett’s ideas on English overlording is, for Gray, less small and limited, for Welsh does not set out to write Scottish novels.
Leaving to one side the knotty one which is whether or not Welsh as a hugely perceptive writer can honour his method, it’s clear to Gray that the self-conscious intent to contemplate what might constitute characteristics of Scottishness in literature is a signal of small-mindedness and inwardness as unbefitting an artist as it is a politician. Gray implies then – ‘Scottishness is a big question, but our artistic engagement with it is making our art small…’.
It could be that Bissett and Morrison – choose your own examples – play up the deliberateness-of-intent of engagement with the nation in which they write and reflect. And it could be that the engagement is just verily there in Welsh’s work, notwithstanding his contrary claim. But Gray’s point is more than a point of literary criticism – his is a point of action about the method in itself – for it will bring nothing but small-mindedness whatever the domain, he believes. ‘Historically,’ Gray writes, ‘Scotland has been at its best when we do not dwell on our Scottishness, but just get on with it.’ (By the way, I actually don’t think that Gray thinks the ‘it’ in that claim is some abstract mode of politics which is somehow above and beyond the context of the sociocultural domain into which ‘it’ would be deployed, ‘it’ is indeed the possibility of a Scottishness in politics. Then again, that’s maybe me making an argument that suits my own ends by teasing his grammar).
The period in Scotland’s history which plays a cameo in Gray’s argument as a moment of non-dwelling on Scottishness is, strangely, the Scottish Enlightenment. Citing Voltaire’s respect for Scottish Enlightenment thinking (believe it or not, ‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation’) Gray makes clear that this reputation was achieved, not by dwelling on which ideas of that time were most Scottish, rather which were most rational and right. That is surely true, but can it be true at the same time that that project of reason, scepticism and hope for improvement of humankind through our attention to what it is we face in the world around us across domains without uncritical deference to given hierarchy presents an example of something which can be reflected upon, should indeed be dwelt upon, not to direct scrutiny endlessly inwards, but to allow us to see through to the other side and to worlds beyond? Is there nothing to learn from that historical moment in Scotland that might inspire a new generation of proud and active Scots, one confident that there is a pedigree and quality of thought, which indeed Gray sees, that could be a principled grounding for a future of independent pounces?
I think it is an act of political expedience and political unreason for Gray to disallow, firstly, some sense of national pride in that which Voltaire so respected, as a phenomenon of our culture which, if dwelt upon, connects us to the world without the need to belittle that which was indeed of this land and culture which gave rise to the phenomenon in the first place. Secondly, Gray disallows into the bargain the very structural possibility of close attention paid to national sociocultural history as a means of achieving the origination and motivation for collective political acts of import within and without one’s place of residence. After all, although this might expose me as not a man of action, we cannot just get on with the ‘it’ of politics without knowing to what ‘it’ all applies (what ‘prosperity’, what ‘equality’, what ‘justice’) and the principles of the Scottish Enlightenment, to take the topical example from Gray’s article (principles not monopolised in Scotland of course as all good introspective Scots know) present still-relevant grounds on which to begin to agree to ‘pounce’, grounds applicable to a diversity of domains of lived relations. And pouncing is maybe all the more free and effective, to borrow Gray’s active model, if one is determining to a greater extent the methods by which one pounces and also the things onto which one will pounce. And these self-determined decisions are no more likely to result in locally-bound pounces than decisions passed on from keepers elsewhere. The opposite could be the case, ask Geddes.
I am sure that Gray and others in Better Together would allow the sensible possibility of deliberation on the Scottish Enlightenment as a method, expedient and altruistic, of devising drivers for a political project beyond referendum, over and above that approach as a generator of national pride. From here there is much to say about the role of that national self-reflection as a means of defining an international identity, but that could take us into the speculative business of aesthetic reason, so, first, my pumpkin soup.