Three notes: 2, Secondariness

(This second note, happily, is on the idea of secondariness – again an idea mentioned in passing in relation to MacCaig. As mentioned by Richard Watt back on good ol’ Facebook, this certainly owes something to Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of ‘minor literatures’, but, as applied to Scottish writing, contravenes their dictum that the minor literature is written in the language of the dominant culture – the doubling of English into Scots and Scots English, and the making secondary of Gaelic already alters the premisses too much.

Again, this is a topic I started writing about a couple of years ago – which presumably actually means about five years ago in human years – but never quite finished with. The earlier articulations are somewhere on my laptop which is somewhere in Dundee, and I’ll retrieve it this weekend. But, as I’m unlikely to put the whole essay together in the same period, I thought it worth posting this introductory note.)

There are lots of ways of being secondary: your chosen art form could be regarded as, culturally, not as important as another, as, say, poetry is regarded in relation to prose fiction. Your area within that form could be regarded as secondary, as, say, Scottish poetry is in relation to English poetry (which may be regarded as secondary in relation to US poetry, in which case Scottish poetry doesn’t actually get to be tertiary, merely to be lumped in with the secondariness of English poetry – a sub-secondariness, if you will). 

You may even be regarded as not the primary practitioner of your secondary area within that secondary art form, as part of being secondary is being represented both within and without your area by a few exemplars – the secondary not being important enough to require further, detailed analysis. 

Almost all of the above categories can be debated and redefined – it is another of the characteristics of the secondary that no analysis of it can ever be, or need be allowed to be, authoritative. But it is generally considered that all these manifestations of secondariness are a bad thing, rather than an enormous liberation.

As the decidedly secondary Scottish poet John Davidson once put it, ‘Surely to strive to please and still to fail/Is to be wretched in the last degree.’ As the clichés of competitive sport have it, ‘Second place is just the first place loser.’ What would make writers seek out such a position, not striving simply to please and with little expectation of ever winning? How can being a loser ever seem liberating?

As it happens, the liberation is very simple: it is to have evaded some or indeed any of the definitions of the primary, with their inevitable narrowing toward orthodoxy, and the necessary engagement of those associated with the primary with power and, indeed, authority, and their attempt to embed it not just in social structures but cultural products or, as we like to think of them, artworks. 

It is, after all, the primary act of the primary to create the secondary: once you’ve established that to be secondary is to be imperfect, then you have successfully defined almost everybody as secondary, and hardly need to add the perfection of the primary – that’s what hyperbole is for. Most standards are designed to exclude you while distracting you into feeling you have failed, rather than draw your attention to the complex of motivations behind establishing the standard. 

That may be why attempts to align the arts with more populist norms like those of sports, as in slams and competitions, can feel somewhat beside the point. The point may well be to popularise, but the effect is to encourage thinking in tiers where the truth may be more syncretic.

Most alternatives to the primary identify it with the mainstream, rather than a mode of thinking, and wish to set themselves up as rival authorities, sources of different, somehow better power, and more authentic authority. But the truly secondary is that which eschews such structures altogether, which embraces its loser status, and examines whether it is really possible to be outside any cultural hegemony, and, if so, how, and if not, what then? The truly secondary explores the liberty offered to it by apparent failure.

Does this mean, you ask, that there are no standards, just power-grubbing, and that anything is as valid as anything else because everything is, really, second-rate? Wow, you’re like a real cynic, aren’t you? No. It just means we have to think harder about the complex of motives that governs our choice of standards – or, in some cases, think at all. Usually, the more entrenched the power base, the less self-reflexive our reliance on ‘standards’ gets – what’s usual for us must also be natural, right? It is at the edges of privilege, where social change makes invested structures slightly less stable, that such wobbles of conscience occur. 

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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