Styx and Stones: themes in UK culture, now
Even though this is about the UK I’ll begin in New York City: on 10th Avenue near to Central Park. I’m working with a diverse group of post-graduate students. They have cool names like Leonardo, Jean-Baptiste and Rosalita. We’re doing an exercise that I use to explore a nation’s culture. At the end of surfacing all the myths and symbols and power structures (and loads more about the nation) the students search for a summary – for what lies at the heart of US culture: What will they say? I wait … then they say:
‘It’s about ‘we can do’. That’s the national culture. We can achieve anything if we put our minds to it, if we want it enough.’
It was a great start: these bright, street-wise people didn’t mess around: ‘Can do’ in mind and body. And then we went on to the ‘no frontiers’ idea – which also lies at the heart of US culture … and so on. Since those explorations of US culture I’ve been wondering about the UK. What’s UK culture all about now? Here are some trends:
There’s Exploitation: Everything is so much stock to be set upon. If ever a culture was like a mine it’s the UK. From ‘Flog it’ to the mania about ‘Houses as investments’ – it’s all about getting the most out of resources – and, all the while, en route to paradise. What paradise? Well, a glass of wine on the patio. (And, make sure you ‘show it’.) A gravestone made of gold.
There’s Simplification: The mass media – mass culture – is terrific at this. The news is structured in terms of simple dichotomies. ‘In depth’ analysis runs to three short paragraphs or 500 words. Taking time to think or make decisions is seen as ‘dithering’. Simplification is laid bare on all the reality TV shows. Imagine this: A famous man announces: ‘I don’t want to hire someone who’s going to fail.’ Pause. And then he says: ‘I want to hire someone who’s going to succeed’. But that’s all blindingly obvious. Wisdom on tap.
There’s Excess: a surplus; millions of channels, trillions of screens, choose this or that, customise, consume or die. The man who works at the council tip told me that, everyday, he had to look away: ‘You wouldn’t believe what people throw away.’ It’s the psycho-pathology of affluence.
There’s a big cluster of things around Human Rights: Human Rights underpins ‘Diversity’ ‘Difference’ and ‘Multiculturalism’. Everyone has a ‘voice’. There’s a remarkable readiness to assert the possession of a ‘Right’ – all sorts of Rights, in fact. Rights mean you deserve ‘Respect’. Nothing has to be earned. Rights are assumed. Easy. Sound off.
There’s a massive issue about Trust: Everything points to the wall-to-wall decline in trust. We’d like to trust and we need to trust but we can’t. Correlated with this is the attack on authority: ‘They’re all the same: out for themselves.’ The consequence? ‘Well, if I’m not out for myself, I’m a loser.’ ‘It’s dog eat dog.’
In response to all the moral relativism, there’s the trick of the ‘Narrative’: The narrator tells his or her tale, ends with a conclusion, pauses and says ‘Or maybe not’. There’s a mantra too, which goes: ‘Well, we just see things differently. It only goes to show…’ The Narrative means we don’t ever get caught. We’re evasive. We pull the rug out from under our feet before anyone else can do so. We can always say: ‘It’s only a story.’ No strings.
There is an urgent need to ‘be someone’: The best forum name ever chosen was the man who went under the nom de plume: ‘2besomeone’.
And then there’s the Humour: There’s a kind of wall-to-wall mocking; sneering even. Everything’s a bit of a laugh. Nothing must be taken too seriously. ‘I look naff, you look naff, he looks naff, we look naff, they look naff.’ And it’s all very funny-ish. The UK does humour well. What’s it all about?
All around there are little emblems of the culture: Ads; wiggly girls; the body not the mind; Catch phrases: ‘Learn your lines well’; ‘Wing it’; ‘You’re only as good as your last game’; ‘What goes around comes around’; ‘You take what you can get.’ Mass culture props up an ideology: What ideology? The autonomous person, the self, getting his or her just desserts. From a ‘You can’t’ culture to a ‘You can’ culture.
How can we pull it all together? I think it’s about identity; it’s about the ‘individual’. We’ve gone crazy about the ‘individual’: ‘Everyone has a right to the good life, to be different, to flourish and to be an exhibit – as good as anybody else.’ BUT there’s a huge problem about this: put most simply, the individual doesn’t really exist. People exist in relation. People are suffused by others near and far. The individual is nothing without society. Even the ‘individuals’ that we see are dependent on the unseen souls struggling away to keep the show on the road. Better to say that we have centres of individual consciousness but we don’t have individuals. So, in a certain sense the UK is in trouble. A basic belief at the heart of its culture is far too narrow.
There’s one countervailing trend. It’s to do with care: Not the formulaic ‘duty of care’ but the simple business of knowing that someone else is in trouble and wanting to do something about it. In fact, you see this everywhere; Charity shops and volunteers and looking-after-lost-dogs. It’s the small-scale psychic glue that holds everything together.
However, there are two very positive aspects to UK culture that make it a good place in which to be. First, each of the trends has something very beneficial to offer: It’s good, for example, to make the most of resources; it’s good to be mistrustful or sceptical so as not to get conned; it’s good to have choice. And hard won ‘rights’ protect us from malevolent authorities. Second, and most significantly, each trend is a kind of thesis – to which there is an antithesis. If people are dissatisfied with things – with what has become a norm or standard – they are relatively free to react against it. Dissatisfaction fuels both artistic and cultural development. And one of the best exemplars of this was the phenomenon of the Rolling Stones. In the ‘60s they were the antithesis – the opposition to the prevailing cultural norms of the day. They were a perfect natural magic … and they’re still going after all these years …