Independence beyond Nationalist Rationalism
Posted on March 9, 2014
‘Cultures of Independence’, co-organised by me and Gerry Hassan, for The Glasgow School of Art and University of the West of Scotland, is a discussion series about the referendum debate in Scotland, the role of culture within that, the culture of politics at large, the lessons that politics can learn from cultural practices to improve the cultures of politics, and the prospects for culture whatever the outcome of the vote in September 2014. And highly stimulating the series has been to date. At our February event we received contributions from Steve Richards, Lesley Riddoch, Trish Reid and Alex Massie. We have a public facebook page, Twitter account @CulturesofIndy and a lively hashtag #indyculture. Our next and final event is April 4th, 2014, at The Glasgow School of Art.
Arising in the main from Trish Reid’s presentation on the structure of the National Theatre of Scotland, the February discussion threw up some very interesting questions about the prospective organisation of cultural practices under Independence and under Nationalist imperatives. The meeting registered openly two contemporary aspects of the latter: firstly, a real, growing and galvanising pride in national cultural production, and secondly, simultaneously, a possible magnetising of practices (and content?) by a galvanising-cum-centralising impulse.
While fresh in mind, some bloggy thoughts here on what that particular debate was pointing to. In concentrated form, the debate between the positive take, ‘nourishing-by-galvanising’, and the negative take, ‘delimiting-by-centralising’, is in some sense a debate about the proximity of Nationalism proper to political Rationalism (maybe even to conservatism [as Alex Massie hinted on the day]). This is a proximity which does not entail, fatalistically, the automatic erasure of culture as coextensive with criticism contra conservatism. That said, it is a proximity which invites questions to be asked by cultural practitioners about the understood function of culture in a landscape charted by Rationalist inclinations.
Of course, this is thus far to require consideration of the extent to which the form of Scottish Independence prefigured by Nationalist politics is readable as a Rationalist enterprise, as well as to encourage musing on the extent to which a Rationalist enterprise, if it is that, is coextensive with a conservative one. Moreover, if indeed both things loom for culture in an Independent Scotland (or even to an extent now) what role then (or now) for the practices of culture-as-critique that one might take as an ever present phenomenon within a (usually favoured by culturos) pluralist, liberal context?
First then, the Rationalist bit. Writing mid-20thC, political scientist Michael Oakeshott observed that Rationalism in politics is predicated upon a species of perfection midwifed by relentless reason. And from this ‘politics of perfection’, asserts Oakeshott, ‘springs the politics of uniformity’ for ‘a scheme which does not recognize circumstance can have no place for variety’. Rationalist inclinations litter the modern history of Europe, Oakeshott relates, for, ‘the notion of founding a society, whether of individuals or of states, upon a Declaration of the Rights of Man is a creature of the rationalist brain, so also are “national” or racial self-determination when elevated into universal principles’.
On behalf of cultural practices and cultural practitioners for what they are in their myriad selves and for what they require to flourish in myriad, Cultures of Independence clocked a Rationalist danger of seeing variety and circumstance expunged by an impulse to consolidate and manage cultural drivers for politics. Distinguished commentators have been here before, as we know. Murray Pittock in his Road to Independence (revised and expanded in 2013) registers both the galvanising and centralising momentum afoot in Scotland’s cultural environment. In the chapter ‘Cultural Independence’ he writes:
The claim of ‘cultural independence’ may be both too neat and too strong, but it is certainly the case that anyone with an interest in the arts moving from Scotland to England, or vice versa, will, except in those forms of culture now universal in the West, notice a number of differences.
Elsewhere in that chapter Pittock reflects on the organisational structures that help define and sustain those differences for Scotland, citing national cultural infrastructure leading to and stemming from the 2006-2007 Culture Bill. Open-eyed about the general organisational and putatively Rationalist logic of such a bill, and thoughtful about the specific prospect around that time of a national cultural academy, Pittock suggests that one reason such an academy did not take hold was the ‘spectre of governmental control of the arts, which already loomed in other aspects of the Culture Bill’.
Now, as an interested cultural professional and cultural punter, I am as convinced of the strength of support for Independence among colleagues in the arts and humanities as I am of the strength of dislike reserved by those colleagues for any inclination that would dedifferentiate and agglomerate cultural activity for Rationalist ends, shedding as that dedifferentiation does, of course, those untidy bits which don’t fit the Rationalist’s geometry. Culture if it is to be culture cannot be the downloadable PDF brochure of reductionist, Nationalist Rationalist tidiness.
So our debate alighted upon a risk inherent to a greater or lesser degree in the idea of a Nationalist cultural sphere in as much as it might be, or is even now, following an Oakeshott at least, an impulse for Rationalist filtering. This risk for some in our sectors is real and present, it seems, especially where the filtering is effected by the order of support of an individual for Independence as a project.
Gerry Hassan and James Mitchell in their introduction to their co-edited, After Independence offer an interesting, indirect perspective on this debate. Borrowing political theorist Bruce Ackerman’s definition of ‘constitutional’ and ‘normal’ politics, Hassan and Mitchell share an observation about the complexion of media coverage of the referendum. Ackerman wants us to see constitutional politics as ‘intermittent and irregular politics of public virtue associated with moments of constitutional creation’: Hassan and Mitchell want us to see Scotland’s media falling short of this noble conception. This deficiency on the part of the media, at least as I read After Independence, is a consequence of both poor quality coverage and a reluctance in certain parts of the media to understand the referendum question as more than Ackermanian ‘normal politics’ – politics that sees ‘factions try to manipulate the constitutional forms of political life to pursue their own narrow interests’.
Culture on the other hand has been busy forever with constitutional politics of an Ackermanian type, concerned as it is at root with ethics and empathy, hence with public virtue, its own public virtue (and boundaries thereof) and that of its politicocultural guardians, in an abstract sense and in applied form. A culture which is retarded in its natural pursuit of virtuous constitutional concerns by being commandeered by the simplifications and abbreviations of Nationalist Rationalist inclination, is a culture aligned to normal politics, destined not to stand the test of time, and not strong enough to undergird the birth of an Independent state.
Relatedly, and finally, Cultures of Independence keynote, Fintan O’Toole spoke to us in January about the potency of Nationalist ‘rocket fuel’ – a political and social energy of a moment that can produce intensive, focused and oft Rationalist activity for specific ends. But an Independence beyond Nationalist Rationalism, one that can burgeon once the rocket fuel has burned out, is surely what we desire right enough, on behalf of culture and for the nation at large – this being true for even those who recognise the tactical importance of an injection of Nationalist Rationalist octane in the machinery of a tidy campaign.
Maybe a national cultural academy with international reach, repute and resource that took pains to protect both the ‘constitutional’ role for culture qua culture and the ‘nation building’ role wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all for an Independent Scotland with aspirations to be understood the world over as much much more than the technical endpoint of normal politics or indeed of historical cultural ambition.