Tuesday, 18 December 2012

What time do you call this?

Hi everybody. I know it's almost time to go home, but I've been working really hard today and tried to stay off the computer for as long as possible, thus knowingly foregoing the kind of outrage that fuels my incessant blogging.

Specifically, I've been reading two fascinating books. The first, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is a classic of ethnography and history. It locates nationalism, especially linguistic nationalism, in the context of developed industrial capitalism rather than in some distant culturally 'pure' past. Without printing presses churning out material in your local language (rather than Latin, English, Dutch or whatever), he says, it's hard to 'imagine' that you're part of an invisible nation. Amongst other fascinating insights, he also suggests that it's the clerical class which generates nationalism: educated to serve the wider empire-state but banned from serving away from one's native community, the functionary starts to see himself as the natural leader of a discrete cultural unit, which becomes a nation. Once a concept has a material culture and a leadership, it starts to legitimise itself through an imagined continuity with the deep past, mostly through linguistic continuity.

This is all very helpful: I'm frantically working on a paper which suggests that O. M. Edwards, a Welsh journalist, Oxford historian and government education functionary essentially invented Wales as a nation in the 1880s-1890s by producing histories, magazines, newspapers and travel writing in Welsh on a massive scale. In particular, I'm looking at Cartrefi Cymru, in which he travels around (often by train - an infrastructure deeply implicated in the colonial construction of Wales) visiting significant houses occupied by famous Welsh people. You get the historical continuity by asserting their – and the readers' – proficiency in Welsh, in constructing a network of inhabited homes (these are not ruins) and by concentrating on certain types of person: mostly post-Reformation clerics, poets and hymn writers. Apart from St David, Edwards stays clear of pre-Reformation people, because they were a) Catholic and b) there never was a sovereign political entity of Wales: it was a series of fluid kingdoms not necessarily united by a common tongue.

So as far as I see it, OM invents a Wales which is only possible after or during colonialism. The Reformation was English. Welshness as a religious and linguistic identity is generated by English administrations' assumptions that the Welsh are a discrete culture, and Edwards uses the tools of capitalism – notably the train and the press – to (paradoxically?) call into being a Welsh nation defined by their language and their religious practice. This, of course, excludes the huge number of Anglophone monoglot Welsh.

For some reason, I proposed to make this chapter a joint analysis of Cartrefi Cymru with George Borrow's Wild Wales, something I now regret. I can juxtapose the titles of the books and get something out of that, and the structures are similar: both men travel from England via railway to discover some kind of 'essential' Wales which will salve their psychological wounds (Borrow always wanted to belong in some way to the groups he studied, while Morris was an exile) but that's as far as I've got. Any ideas?

The other book I read today was Ted Gioia's The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture. It's a bracing read and very judgemental, though I do find it a tad reactionary. It's amazing how sex and gender seemingly don't deserve a mention. Female performers are mentioned twice, but there's no discussion of gender and performance or gender and culture. I'm reading it because there's another paper I need to have written by early January on jazz in three modern novels, Alan Plater's Beiderbecke Trilogy, Jim Crace's All That Follows and Jackie Kay's Trumpet. I'm thinking of incorporating some of Imagined Communities into this one too: Plater's novel uses jazz to build a non-threatening homosocial network of new man jazz fans again dependent on the exchange of capitalist goods (records) as an alternative to various other gender formations: political women, violent men, state-functionary men, bullies etc. Anyone who listens to jazz in these novels is likely to be sensitive or at least morally sound. Women might be decent, attractive, deferred to on any number of levels: but none of them understand jazz, which is partly depicted as the central experience of this 'imagined community' and partly as a male displacement activity: our hero switches easily between jazz facts and football statistics. It's just collecting.

The other two novels are about jazz players. In Crace's novel, Leonard Lessing (see the diminutive implied in the name) is physically, psychically, socially and phallically wounded by his damaged arm. He can't play, can't keep his marriage on the tracks, can't find his daughter and can't have any political effect on the world: when the jazz comes back, everything else recovers too. In Kay's Trumpet (one of the best novels I've read in a very long time) the dead jazz man is revealed to be an interloper: a woman masquerading as a man in jazz and in his marriage. The novel's structured as an improvised solo but also as the sections of a newspaper. The characters are all improvising their lives, musically, sexually, socially. Trumpet is also about race: Joss Moody is Scottish and mixed-race: origins are in the mix here too. So with these texts I'll use Anderson's ideas to some extent, but also Judith Butler's concepts of sex and gender as performative. Not sure how it'll go: the central section of the novel is the only one which really deals with the psychical experience of playing jazz and I'm not entirely clear whether it's esssentialist or anti-essentialist. Does jazz allow Joss to express his masculinity and blackness, or does it take him beyond such labels?

So that's what I've been doing today, and will be doing non-stop until January 15th when both papers are due. Gulp.

No comments: