Culture and Subculture; Identity and Rivalry

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crazystrawsThe morning after the Olympics I heard a conversation on the radio about national and regional identities. It wandered through whether it was positive or divisive for people to be saying things like 'If Yorkshire were a country, we'd be 7th on the medal table', past how John Lennon's 'Imagine there's no countries' throws the whole concept of the Olympic Games in disarray, and ended with the cheering thought that, 'When the Martians land, that's when we can reasonably be separatist.'

The notion it developed without really naming was that of identities as nested. British people do this a lot as a matter of course: depending on context I may say that I'm British or I may say that I'm English. I've moved around enough that I don't tend to identify with a smaller granular level than that, though if I were a Yorkshirewoman or a Scouser I might carry that identification with me even as I moved round the country: it's clear that some regions and cities have a stronger tribal pull than others.

We do this in music all the time too of course.

We get identified with and by both the kinds of genres we operate in as practitioners and the kinds of social circumstances in which we make music, and the more deeply we drill down into specialisation, the more distinctions we can see. Where an outsider sees a group of Early Music experts, the insiders see a gulf between the mediaevalists and the Renaissance scholars, and a chasm between the experts on the French and the Italian Baroque.

And, like other forms of social identity, we get used to shunting between more or less local versus global levels of specification depending on context. It takes a certain level of shared experience for the differences in knowledge between a Charpentier and a Rameau expert to be significant, just as it takes a certain depth of local knowledge to appreciate a joke that contrasts people from Tipton with those from Wednesbury.

I probably wouldn't have wanted to write about this specifically, had I not seen, just a day or two after hearing that radio programme, the xkcd cartoon posted at the top of this article. This makes the point that, not only are identities nested, but that the distinctions between identities are based on perceptions of difference. (Saussaureans all nod sagely here.)

There are people who find this a matter of great regret and anxiety, as they see it as the source of mistrust, bigotry and conflict. They have a point of course. But I'm not sure that attempting to erase or deny difference solves this problem, since this fractal differentiation is always available. Once it stopped being acceptable for white British comedians to crack jokes against blacks or the Irish, they turned on each other to pick on the ginger-haired.

It's not the fact of perceived difference in forming identity where the moral debate lies, but in how we react to it. The Olympic ideal is an exemplary model here, using competition between those representing separately identified groups as a means to promote bonding between them. Athletes are proud to represent their different countries, but they do so by participating in the best peer group the world can offer them. The keenest rivalry is rooted in similarity; you have the most in common with the person you compete with most directly.

But the cartoon gives access to two particular insights that I find quite helpful. The first is it articulates beautifully the post-structuralist notion that there is no central or stable core to identity. We construct our identities discursively and performatively out of the social contexts available to us. The cartoon's point that splits and splinter groups are always possible in a process of endless memetic speciation shows Derrida's concept of deferral very nicely and in rather easier language than is usually used to present it.

The second point is a practical tip for those interested in the processes of charisma. Charisma is a critical condition: it has a bone to pick. It cannot arise in a world where all is stable and everyone is happy with the status quo. This is why inherently unstable social circumstances are apt to produce charismatic leaders - the situation demands one.

But any particular social world, no matter how small or specialist, is susceptible to fissure. It is possible in any circumstance to take a critical stance, to draw a line in the sand and say, 'No we've been doing it wrong all these years; we should do it this way!' One can create the circumstances in which charisma can flourish.

Now, this starts to sound like a recipe for self-destructive wrangling and internal politics. And indeed it can result in this if certain other conditions are lacking. (Note to self: must get round to writing up my notes on charisma and expansionism.) But it can also be the means for renewal, to refresh the conventions with and commitments to a particular social world.

I have written before how boundaries in art create channels as well as constraints. It is those who propose to move the boundaries who can galvanise the group into change. Only in retrospect is it usually clear whether this change should be seen as salvation or destruction.

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