Dislocated Culture & the Commonwealth Opening Ceremony

“The colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope…” – Frantz Fanon

At the 2012 London Olympics, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was supposed to be a celebration of a multicultural England. The camera panned around as Bollywood dancing transitioned into ‘street dance’ transitioned into ballet. Boyle’s goal was to move seamlessly throughout these notably different cultures to capture a multicultural London, a place where Bollywood and ballet were but two equal if distinct shards of ‘London culture’.

Kim Gavin’s closing ceremony was the diametric opposite. The resounding image of the closing ceremony was Eric Idle singing ‘Always Look On The Bright Side of Life’ before being interrupted by Bollywood dancers. Idle was looking over his shoulder at them with a ‘what the fuck’ expression. This comedy section was supposed to play off the juxtaposition between the colourful (people of colour) dancing and the stuffy old (English)man who’s never seen anything like it and is disturbed, distracted and thrown off his game. Diversity became a disruptive force.

The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow didn’t get as far as showcasing Glaswegian diversity. It didn’t even get as far as showcasing Glasgow. Instead the focus was on a kitsch and materially non-existent Scotland of ‘hairy coos’, ‘monsters in lochs’, Robert Burns, tartan, and Tunnock’s tea cakes.

This was the 'true Scotsman' joke. The kilt fell away to reveal...

This was the ‘true Scotsman’ joke. The kilt fell away to reveal…

There was no realistic sense of self for Glasgow or Scotland displayed at the opening ceremony. The Olympic opening ceremony in London was able to, secure in itself at the centre of empire, create a mosaic image of what Boyle felt ‘made’ the city. The Commonwealth opening ceremony felt like clutching at exotic shards of immaterial and mythological ‘Scottish culture’ to create an image of ‘us’ to sell to the world. This happened – and was always going to happen – because of an anxiety about who ‘we’ are. It’s a fittingly Commonwealth problem.

Scotland, while not colonized in any traditional sense, is a country that has experienced dislocations of culture and language analogous to those experienced by colonized people throughout the British Commonwealth as a result of its relationship to Brit imperialism. This was famously suggested in The Eclipse of Scottish Culture: Inferiorism and the Intellectuals (1989) by Craig Beveridge and Ron Turnbull. This text has been largely rubbished in academic circles for implying that Scotland was colonized. However, the same assertion that Scotland has been brainwashed about its cultural inferiority to the centre of Brit imperialism was made in the early 90s by James Kelman to a good deal less controversy. Scotland may not have been colonized by the Brits in the way that Algeria was colonized by the French but to refuse to look at Scotland through a ‘postcolonial’ lens because of that fact is to commit intellectual suicide.

Frantz Fanon, writing about colonized Algeria, stressed the impact that colonial culture and colonial academia had on native culture and ‘native intellectuals’. Fanon believed that a people convinced of their own inferiority would respond culturally by either imitating the colonial culture or attempting to measure up by brandishing shards of pre-colonial culture:

 “At the very moment the native intellectual is anxiously trying to create a cultural work he fails to realize that he is utilizing techniques and language which are borrowed from the stranger in his country. He contents himself with stamping these instruments with a hall-mark which he wishes to be national, but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism” (Fanon, ‘On National Culture’, The Wretched of the Earth, pg. 180)

In Scotland, the ‘stranger in the country’ is the Scottish person.

An important distinction between British Scotland and French Algeria is that Scottish people could not be distinguished by the colour of their skin. A bourgeoisie collaborative class in Fanon’s reading of Algeria is still perceptively distinct from the stranger in the country. In Scotland, there was not necessarily a visual divide. Furthermore, the decline of Scots language – to the ultimate extent of its extinction – and the Scottish elocution classes of the mid-18th Century’s designs to make Scottish people sound less Scottish further concealed the division between native and stranger. The elocution classes improved career prospects by concealing difference. The Scottish person became the stranger in their own country. In Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political (1993), James Kelman argued that Scottish people only reach positions of power and influence once they internalize a sense of inferiority. That sense of inferiority was on full display on July 24th.
openin 1 The zeitgeist around Glasgow seems to be that the opening ceremony was stamped with a hallmark that was supposed to be national but which was strangely reminiscent of exoticism. We got a crude representation of Scottishness that seemed to anticipate the clichés outsiders would expect. It couldn’t have been further from the realities of life in Glasgow or Scotland: Westminster imposed sanctions, the criminalization of poverty, skyrocketing food bank usage. The same countries whose dignitaries were being welcomed to the games have their people turned away if they come here seeking asylum. Frantz Fanon’s argued that it was the responsibility of the ‘native intellectual’ to produce culture based on the realities of the present rather than exotic dreams of the past or kitsch mythologies. That doesn’t have to mean soapbox polemic and hard politics but it does require a more sensitive approach to the cultural representation of Glasgow and Scotland than we saw last week.

Potentially the most damaging response to the opening ceremony has been “how can we want an independent Scotland when we can’t even do that right?” This is a marvellously illogical position to take. Scotland’s lack of independence is the precise reason why the opening ceremony was so bad. At the London Olympics there was space created by a pre-existing and ubiquitous sense of ‘national identity’ for Danny Boyle to deconstruct or for Kim Gavin to abuse. At the Glasgow Commonwealth Games the opening ceremony was always going to be haunted by the question of ‘who we are’. The struggle to dramatize the national character was always going to marginalize anything that didn’t fit some fictional conception of national essence. The mission statement was read by two white men reading alone and then a person of colour and a woman reading in tandem into one microphone in a hellish display of tokenism. In an effort to highlight ‘our’ distinctness everything else fell by the wayside.

The following excerpt from Fanon’s ‘On National Culture’ reads devastatingly in the wake of the opening ceremony:

 To fight for national culture means in the first place to fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible. There is no other fight for culture which can develop apart from the popular struggle [for independence]… We must not therefore be content with delving into the past of a people in order to find coherent elements which will counteract colonialism’s attempts to falsify and harm. We must work and fight with the same rhythm as the people to construct the future and to prepare the ground where vigorous shoots are already springing up. A national culture is not a folklore, nor an abstract populism that believes it can discover people’s true nature. It is not made up of the inert dregs of gratuitous actions, that is to say actions which are less and less attached to the ever present reality of the people. A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence. (Fanon, ‘On National Culture’, The Wretched of The Earth, pg. 187 & 188)

Independence would allow us to break free of all notions of inferiority and inferiorism. Were the Commonwealth Games to return to an independent Scotland, the new opening ceremony would be free to showcase the diversity that makes us strong, free from any and all crippling notions of inferiority, or the pressing psychological need to ‘measure up’.

On the 19th of September we can start to reassemble our broken notions of who we are.



2 responses to “Dislocated Culture & the Commonwealth Opening Ceremony

  1. Pingback: An independent Scotland is a necessity and our day will come. | dead clydeside·

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