Stiob! It’s the New Unsettlement

(I’ll try to post this four part piece daily across this week.)

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One social phenomenon which illustrates this neatly is the late Soviet satiric mode of stiob*. According to Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak, who produced a study comparing stiob to more contemporary satiric programmes in the US like ‘The Colbert Report’, it was ‘a particular mode of parody…that imitated and inhabited the formal features of authoritative discourse to such an extent that it was often difficult to tell whether it was a form of sincere support, subtle ridicule, or a peculiar mixture of the two…’

(Illustration by Andrew Gardner)

The UK had its versions of this in, famously, ‘The Day Today’, and, in a similar way, in the use of documentary techniques in ‘The Office’ – and indeed in the unsettling edge introduced to his actual documentaries by Louis Theroux. Sacha Baron Cohen and Charlie Brooker have also developed techniques we could compare to stiob. In such cases it is as though our culture has been so suffused with irony, that it is not until some party – be it a participant or a viewer – is in actual doubt or is unable to establish the veracity of what is being presented, that irony can be said to be operating at all.

In a sense, this aspect of engagement and personal agency relates to the new political dispensation we see in post-Labour Scotland, and indeed in the turmoil of the EU referendum and the US presidential campaigns. Just as a rejection of mainstream and establishment political certainties means we are either controlled by ridiculous demagogues, or we turn to more idealistic (and more idealised) dark horses of the left, so too we are in the position of actually having to make our minds up about culture.

In the numb-to-irony position we occupy ‘post’-postmodernism, if we aren’t challenged into having to determine whether and how something is parodic or sincere, then we could argue that the satiric event can no be longer be said to have taken place. We are all, therefore, critics or dupes. (In this respect, supporters of Trump have taken the old cliché about Americans’ blindness to irony to terrifying new depths.)

Moreover, this may mean our approach to parody, pastiche, and imitation, in short, to the copy as version as opposed to replica – a little like our response to translation – is now the marker of our engagement with the arts in general. If we are not thrown into a similar type of crisis of interpretation, our responses may only be stock, pre-theorised for us as part of the universal commodification of late Capitalism, which naturally includes theories about late Capitalism.

Under such a dispensation, as ‘Nathan Barley’ prophesied, those who suppose that by presenting themselves as ironic they can be seen as hip, self-identify as the new dunces.

One could argue, now the nerd and the geek are allegedly cool, that the last bastions of dysfunctionality and loser-dom are becoming commodified too. But is it only by being too weird for fish that anything can get done? To be outside without zealously striving to be an outsider sounds too Zen a discipline for most of us to attempt, so must we be content with simply failing to fail better?

One of the defining characteristics of Informationism, the pretend literary movement I pretended to be part of back in the 90s when my interest in the virtuality of Dundee began, was its engagement with undermined discourse. We were as interested in the vainglorious discourse of the manifesto and late Modernism as we were in the controlling discourses of the media, of the cultural historian and the literary theorist. But, much as it sounds like it ought to be, this wasn’t a simplistic postmodern flattening of affect.

Then as now the struggle was to get complex, to preserve a Scottish literary genealogy and cultural history we saw as overlooked, misread and underrepresented in mainstream accounts. It was because, despite this effort, we ourselves had significant issues with that alternative, discontinuous, post-MacDiarmid tradition, that our approach was ironised, not because we thought certain types of literary discrimination no longer mattered.

This could be read as an example of Isaiah Berlin’s analogy of the Fox and the Hedgehog as a description of how we frame concepts. Borrowing from the decidedly spiky but also rather cunning Greek poet Archilochus, Berlin famously characterises the Fox as taking many approaches; while the Hedgehog sees only one way to go.

Our concern was we saw a homogenising notion of Scottish writing as fitting neatly within the narratives of Northern Ireland and Northern England – the Harrison-Heaney-Hughes triangle that nets Dunn, but leaves MacDiarmid (and Bunting) cast adrift. Faced with the Hedgehog of Anglo-Irish Poetic Hegemony, we favoured a Fantastic Mr Fox-like diversification of approaches and provocations, all tunnels and channelings. That worked out great for us.

In general, the sort of group thinking which governs reviewing, awards, and festival bookings, tends to favour the hedgehog over the fox. Bureaucratic structures often struggle with complex models, let alone with communicating them, and people confronted with areas in which they lack expertise will find a simpler breakdown however distorted more acceptable. (As Berlin admitted, the clear binary of the fox and the hedgehog was itself one such simplification: it might be more accurate to say we may consider issues as foxes, but we tend to draw our conclusions as hedgehogs.)

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What is at stake here is a reversion to essentialisms of aesthetics commensurate with the essentialism of identities we see on the political stage – a new provincialism which rediscovers old bureaucratic mindsets, or a new philistinism seeking old ways of controlling culture by cronyism and naysaying.

Provincialism may seem an odd term to use. What does it really mean to be provincial in an era where everywhere is (sort of) connected to everywhere else, where the most extreme periphery can be accessed almost as easily as the metropolis?

But might provincialism be, wherever you are, not to attempt to assess the value of your culture, except as commodity, fashion accessory, status symbol? Might it be not to synthesise or even syncretise – thinking across fields of production, across geographies, across eras – but rather to lord it over your patch, your lustrum, your ‘thing’? Might it be not to be unsettled: in short, to think stolidly of culture for what it gives to you, rather than what you give to it?

*I’m indebted to Kate Fox for pointing me in the direction of this abstract.

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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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