As I write this, my plane has just taken off from Heathrow, seven hours after its scheduled departure. I spent six of them on the tarmac, trying to soothe the part of my brain that was spinning a story about British Airways’ incompetence. That was fairly challenging: during the previous hour, I’d stood in the aisle of an overheated and airless bus wondering why it was taking so long to board, when it was at last announced that the flight would be a little delayed because the door had been damaged when the boarding stairs were wheeled into place. Through the bus window I could see the hapless ground crew, including the man who towed the staircase, idly ambling up and down the stairs in an unsuccessful attempt to look innocent and helpful.
Resistance finally became futile just before takeoff. I’m seated in the first row of a section, so my TV screen swings up to eye-level on an arm tucked under the seat. Before the security video played, the flight attendant reached over to flip up the screen. Only he used insufficient force, causing it to fall back and hit me squarely on the shin. At my inadvertent “Ouch!” the attendant smiled and said, “Nothing personal.” After ten hours or so, we came in for a landing twice: the first time, the pilot pulled up abruptly, then made a wide circle before returning to the landing-field. Over the intercom he told us it was “nothing unusual.”
Did I mention that some of my best friends are British? Of course, I no more hold this against them than I wish to be held responsible for my fellow Americans’ clumsiness. And yet, I couldn’t help but think of Ashis Nandy’s reference to that “ultimate virtue of aggressive British masculinity, sportsmanship,” which valorizes a stiff upper lip. I’m not suggesting that there’s a better response than acceptance to this sort of careless inconvenience: rioting wouldn’t have gotten us home any sooner. But would it have hurt to acknowledge a little culpability here? Or offer some token of appreciation for our forbearance?
On the other hand, my long wait enabled me to finish Nandy’s 1983 book The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. The author is a brilliant and erudite thinker who draws on literature, spirituality, sociology, and social psychology to paint an incisive portrait of how, rather than consisting only of a set of external conditions forced on the colonized, “[a]s a state of mind, colonialism is an indigenous process released by external forces.” The first of the volume’s two essays is a subtle exploration, in deeply psychological and richly gendered terms, of what Nandy calls the “second colonization”: not the plundering of imperial bandit-kings, but the colonialism that “colonizes minds in addition to bodies and…releases forces within the colonized societies that alter their cultural priorities once for all.”
Nandy’s book was recommended to me by someone at a previous speaking engagement who heard me refer to “uncolonized minds,” a phrase I often use to characterize the free thinkers I so admire: Paulo Freire, Paul Goodman, Jane Jacobs, and many others I’ve written about. (The Intimate Enemy‘s second essay is entitled “The Uncolonized Mind.”) I started the book a week ago on the plane from California, reading with mounting excitement, noticing for the umpteenth time how—even though I live in the belly of imperial power—deeply I am moved and influenced by the writing of brilliant third-world public intellectuals and how remarkably relevant to first-world culture I find such discourse. (For much of Nandy’s career, he was based at the Centre for The Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, where he is still Senior Fellow.)
I thought about Nandy’s book all the way through a wonderful week in Scotland, seeing friends and colleagues, getting a little taste of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and speaking at the ArtWorks 2012 Conference mounted by Creative Scotland. This was a national meeting of artists who work in communities and institutions (they say “participatory settings,” I prefer “community cultural development,” but whatever name is used, we’re referring to artists who put their gifts to work building community and helping community members express and embody their concerns and hopes in artistic projects). In essence, this is anti-colonial work, asserting each person’s right to culture, to a vision and voice not overdetermined by the imposition of a dominant worldview.
I was impressed with the seriousness of intention I encountered among these Scottish artists: people’s willingness to plunge in, their desire to continuously improve their work, their dedication and caring. I was also impressed that the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which is funding five ArtWorks programs across the U.K., is investing such significant attention (and resources) into a field which often gets only cursory notice from resource-providers and policymakers in the U.S.
Within the U.K., Scotland has a high degree of autonomy: its own courts, authority over transportation and environment, a full cabinet of ministers, and so on. Politically, it is far more progressive than England: many people remarked that there is only one Conservative Scottish member of the UK Parliament (there are just a few in the Scottish Parliament, a one-chamber body which works on a very cool proportional representation system). There is a pride in and assertion of identity (which has been embraced with an admirable enthusiasm that sometimes stretches logic, as in the extension of Gaelic language as an emblem of national culture to parts of the country in which it was not previously spoken). In late 2014, the Scottish government will hold a referendum on sovereign independence. If it passes, it’s not clear whether it will have the force of law, requiring Westminster to comply; right now, the U.K. Parliament asserts the right to amend the Scotland Act which granted a greater degree of independence in 1998, following a 1997 referendum.
I asked perhaps a dozen people what they thought about the referendum. All of them are thoughtful, progressive, and deeply committed to cultural democracy, and all of them said they were unsure. Some cited a concern for Great Britain: without the left-leaning force of Scottish members in the U.K. Parliament, they said, Britain would tilt irrevocably to the right. Others said that while they supported more autonomy, they worried that Scotland couldn’t sustain an economy truly independent of Britain; or that it is one thing to support the idea of independence and another to have a viable plan as to how it is to be expressed and administered (which the the upcoming referendum may lack). They have plenty of time to think about it, explore and debate it, which seems like a very good thing given the complexity of the issues involved.
But it mostly wasn’t the outward forms of colonialism that drew my attention. As in the U.S., Nandy’s work evoked the interior colony. Let me give you an example. I had perhaps eight conversations with artists participating in the conference that began this way, “I’d like to do that, but I don’t have a qualification in….” By “qualification,” they meant a degree or certificate signifying they had completed formal university or art school training in a particular subject-area. Some are highly specific: I have a qualification in music education, but not performance.
I think I got into so many of these conversations because I come down so hard on the theme of desire and imagination. The only thing I know for certain about the future, I tell people, is that those who don’t get their hopes up will never see their hopes realized. Nothing can be enacted that has not first been imagined. Most of the people who wanted to talk to me about qualifications tripped over the topic as an impediment to their own desires: they heeded my encouragement to envisage, but what arose in their minds was the the feeling that “I haven’t got the proper qualification” to enact my vision.
Now here’s the part that drew my attention: Seeking to understand, I asked how this worked. Did they apply for jobs or seek funding for projects only to be turned away for lack of credentials? No, they said: prospective employers and funders tended to ask about prior experience and accomplishments, strongly implying that criterion. But really, the impediment was in their own minds. Without the specific formal qualification they felt a particular role was understood to require, they told themselves they needn’t bother trying.
The interior colony echoes in my own mind too. Perhaps this is needless to say: after all, it comes bundled with our brains in the twenty-first century. But my aversion to being controlled by that voice is overwhelming. Let me stipulate that my own make-up includes an especially large helping of “just do it,” and what’s more, that class barriers and attendant expectations of knowing one’s place are far stronger throughout the British Isles than in the U.S. I don’t expect others to place the same value that I do on chutzpah.
On the other hand, there is a longstanding working-class tradition asserting the right to culture, such as Raymond Williams’ account of his Welsh upbringing and class prejudice in his amazing essay “Culture is Ordinary” and the Scottish community arts pioneer Helen Crummy’s story of fighting for children in her book Let The People Sing. No doubt Williams founded the Open University in part to advance equal access to formal qualifications. He also certainly understood Nandy’s point about colonialism being an indigenous process unleashed by external forces, and I’m positive he would have understood mine about the same dynamic operating within an individual—the interior colony—unleashed by social pressure from a dominant class.
A few years ago, I authored a report on a study I’d co-led with colleagues, summarizing research into the training of community artists (animateurs, artists working in participatory settings, what-have-you). Community Cultural Development in Higher Education revealed the same inherent truth that some of ArtWorks’ early and extensive research has turned up: that learning while doing is widely considered by practitioners to be the most valuable form of training, especially structures that enable something like apprenticeship. Indeed, while some of my “qualifications” conversations in Scotland were with people who said they’d felt more confident since attaining a specific degree or certification and also reported that they’d often found their coursework stimulating and informative, none of them said their skills and strengths were owing to that formal study. Mostly, they were doing much the same work as before their return to formal education, but the inner colonial subject felt more confident knowing that the credential had been earned.
When we surveyed U.S. colleges and universities, we found wild variations from place to place in the breadth and quality of programs. Some programs were strong (sadly, some of them have been weakened since by budget cuts). But some of what we discovered was alarming: faculty members who had no real on-the-ground experience in community cultural development were sometimes assigned to teach courses; community placements were sometimes made without students having received a solid grounding in ethical practice, or with little attention to the continuity and quality of experience for the community members who in effect served as learning opportunities for ill-prepared (if well-intentioned) students. Practitioners in Scotland told me they sometimes encountered these same deficiencies. How much of a valid qualification (as opposed to a mere imprimatur) does such a program offer? I am glad that ArtWorks is tackling this subject, and hope they do so with full attention to all forms of education and training that embody these practices’ true values. But mostly, I’d like to see the dynamic and talented community artists I met overthrow the inner colony, free to choose whatever learning brings their full, unapologetic presence to the individuals and communities with whom they work.
John Trudell speaks most eloquently for colonized peoples indigenous to this continent. “Tina Smiled” is a beautiful tribute to his wife Tina Manning Trudell, killed along with her mother and children in an arson attack in 1979. The attack came a few hours after John Trudell spoke and burned an American flag in front of FBI headquarters.
Nandy writes of the colonizers’ nightmare that subject people will stop trying to prove themselves by the colonizers’ rules, and
…will discover an alternative frame of reference within which the oppressed do not seem weak, degraded and distorted men trying to break the monopoly of the rulers on a fixed quantity of machismo. If this happens, the colonizers begin to live with the fear that the subjects might begin to see their rulers as morally and culturally inferior, and feed this information back to the rulers.
World so undivided
where the high wind flies
and somewhere a wild horse listens.
your flight departure sounded frustrating and kind of horribly British – a bit like ‘FAwlty Towers’ a very hilarious british sitcom about an incompetent hotelier!
I enjoyed reading your blog and impressions of the Artworks conference and interested in your comments around inner colonialism which is i think very real.
The context behind that of course, is that Scotland has been dominated and colonised in the past and I think the Scottish psyche has nver quite recovered from past historical traumas – there’s a sort of time lag. This feeling of a lack of confidence or not feeling good enough (the common phrase being ‘I kent yer faither…’ ie I knew your parents – who do you think YOU are??), means that many Scots often dont want to put their heads above the parapet. WE are only just emerging from this national mindset , and I think are in a state of transition. Your comments are very perceptive , and I just wanted to articulate what I see as underlying this state of inner colonialisation.
My other thought, which occurred to me after I left the conference and I was reminded of when you referred to ‘artists who put their gifts to work building community and helping community members .. etc ‘, is that not all of us started out as ‘artists’. – at least not in the ‘professional’ sense. I for one felt myself to be more of a community worker, (with a background in sociology and health education). I already worked in the community and it was latterly that I decided to bring music into my work as a tool. I think many ‘artists ‘ in community settings are actually social workers, community workers, etc, who develop their arts as a useful way of working. Was it Eric Booth who said that we are asking artists to become good social workers and maybe waht we need are more social workers to become good artists!! I chime with that!
I lent your book ‘New creative Community’ to Donald Smith , director of the Storytelling Centre who was very impressed – having initally been a bit sceptical and he said it made great sense particularly if you read it alongside Gary West’s new book, Voicing Scotland: Folk, Culture, Nation.
YOu’ll be home now . It was great to meet you and I hop we’ll meet up again one day. MAny many thanks for a great conference last week! It will feed me for ages.
It was wonderful to meet you. I hope our paths cross again soon.
My own observation is that some practitioners start out as artists who want their art to matter more and discover this work as a powerful mode of organizing and activism; and some start as organizers (or social workers or other community workers) who discover arts work in the same way—and they meet in the middle. I guess I don’t buy the two categories as so far apart. To me, the middle ground is inclusive and attractive enough to hold all our capacities, so why not meet there, and what difference does it make, really, where we started out, so long as we bring integrity, commitment, and grace to our work? It is evident to me that you do. I send all good wishes that you go from strength to strength.