Scottish Nationalism and the Sublime

With the advent of Scotland’s vote on independence in 2014, a study of Scottish nationalism is both topical and timely. According to Hobsbawm, nations, at least in the modern sense, are products of the eighteenth century (Hobsbawm, 2012, p.12) and not, as Bagehot thought, ‘as old as history’ (Bagehot, Physics and Politics, p.83). Nationalism is defined as the belief that the people identified as belonging to a national community, should form their own sovereign state (Budge et al, 1998, p.139). Although other social theories could be used to analyse the concept of nationalism, this essay will consider nationalism in relation to the concept of the sublime, using aesthetics as a methodology. The sublime challenges the assumption that beauty is a necessary condition of good art. It inspires awe, excites ideas of pain and danger, and can be solid and massive (Hanfling, 1998, p.44). At the hands of nationalism, between 1880 and 1914, ‘most of the world outside of Europe and the Americas … came under the formal rule or informal political dominance of a handful of European states’ (Hobsbawm, 2003, p.133).  At the same time, in the era of Globalisation, the politics of identity have recreated the nation as a surrogate for troubled civil society  (Harvie, 2004, p.32). With this in mind, this essay will ask if we can approach Scottish nationalism from an aesthetic perspective. Rather than following a traditional romantic notion of nationalism, an analysis of this kind permits us to distinguish national identity from group identity. In short, this essay asks: is Scottish nationalism sublime? In order to answer this question, the essay will firstly explain Scottish nationalism from an historical perspective, and then it will invoke the works of, among others, Burke and Ranciere in an attempt to find an answer to the essay question.

To evaluate nationalism through the lens of aesthetics, or to ask can nationalism be aesthetic, it is important to consider in brief the concept of nationalism and identity in Scotland. Hutchison and Smith believe that ‘nationalism is one of the most powerful forces in the modern world exerting a strong influence in the American and French revolutions’ (Hutchison and Smith, 1994, p.3). Yet nationalism in Scotland did not firmly take root until the eighteenth century under the watch of a resident English aristocracy. Prior to the Enlightenment, Scotland saw a variety of invasions, migrations, and ethnic or political entities (Stroh, 2012, p.47). Without a political hegemony, shifting relationships between these entities were fluid and in flux. It is reasonable to assert, as Stroh does, that a variety of short-lived communities, conquest and consequential ethnic ‘othering’ thrived in Scotland’s Dark and early medieval ages (Stroh, 2012, p. 49). Cultural combination in a heterogeneous Scotland therefore suggests that the popular notion of Celticness is inaccurate. Indeed Stroh points out that the Gaelic language, often identified as the bedrock of ancient Scottish national identity, did not become used extensively until the twelfth century (Stroh, 2012, p. 51). This supports the assertion of Anderson that ‘the formal universality of nationality is a social-cultural concept’ (Anderson, 2006, p.7). Anderson goes on to propose a definition of nation as an ‘imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’ (Anderson, 2006, p.6).

To build upon Anderson’s analysis, it would be reasonable to claim that aesthetics can be viewed as a political discourse. Commonly seen as a discipline within philosophy, aesthetics is usually connected to the nature of art and the understanding of beauty and nature. In viewing aesthetics as a political discourse, Redfield notes that the nation-state ‘should remain the premier vehicle of political and economic legislation’ (Redfield, 2003, p.45). Anderson makes a valid point in stating that the nation-state is faceless and imagined, but possesses properties represented simply by signs and symbols, with a flag being the perfect example. Drawing upon semiotics we can interpret these signs as signifying belief, the defense of the nation, the revival and maintenance of tradition etc. But for all its representations, is it possible to point at our nation-state and say ‘there it is’? In other words, is it a tangible entity? Moretti suggests that the nation is an entity beyond imagining and is indefinable. He questions the existence of the nation-state by asking: ‘Where is it? What does it look like? How can one see it?’ (Moretti, 1998, p.17). By saying that it ‘cannot be imagined and only imagined’ (Redfield, 2006, p.50), we are beginning to understand that nationality does in fact correspond to Burkes idea of the sublime, where Burke believed that beauty and the sublime are set in diametrical opposition. We can draw upon Burke to see the uncertainty of the nation-state as a sort of terror or as ‘dark, uncertain, and confused’ – the very antithesis of light and beauty (Burke, 1756 [2009], p.23). For Burke, the sublime is vast, rugged and even dangerous (Hanfling, 1992, p.44).

In terms of historical contextualization, uncertainty and confusion were manifest in medieval Scotland, as the nation was comprised of disparate ethnic communities, often in binary opposition with each other (Stroh, 2011, p.154). Spivak argues that collectivities bound by birth have been in existence long before nationalism came around (Spivak, 2012, p.48). Spivak’s analysis concerns the Indian subaltern at the point of Indian independence, and suggests that when the comfort of group identity is removed, feelings of helplessness, disorientation and dependency are left in its wake (Spivak, 2012, p.49).  This therefore suggests that prior to national identity, group identity, commitment, and loyalty is inherent in all of us. Timothy Brennan states in his essay ‘The National Longing for Form’ that although nationality can represent the modern nation-state, it has its roots in ‘community, domicile, family, and condition of belonging’ (Brenin, 1990, pp.44). By examining historical Empires, group communities expanded to become city-states bound by race and custom. These extended communities then become Empires. However, central to this essay is the assumption that group identity, and its developments, are fundamentally different to the imagined identity of nationalism.

Since the end of feudalism in Europe there has been a strong movement ‘towards the escalation in societal size through successive rounds of elimination contests’ (Stokes, 2004). In the Middle Ages Scotland emerged from these contests as a mostly Gael society, where state and nation combined, bolstered by the trappings of nationalism, myth, ritual and the national epic (Trevor-Roper, 2009, p.57). The national epic is a work of poetry believed to embody the intrinsic nature of a nation, often explaining in verse the historic origins of that nation, and can have strong associations with claims to independence. Some myths include the great antiquity of Scottish cultural objects such as the kilt, often associated with a specific clan, and of course the bagpipes. An analysis of these cultural objects presents an opportunity to evaluate the objects themselves. Are they beautiful? David Hume suggests that there ‘must be more to the perception of beauty than the perception of particular objective qualities’ (Hanfling, 1998, p.44). Moreover, his subjective account of beauty may explain why some find the bagpipes beautiful, and many do not. So, the question then arises whether the marks of Scottish identity were made from myth, manufactured and imagined, and put into words as the National Epic, were expressed as an aesthetic noble archetype? And as the ‘romance of nation’ builds a head of steam, do we find Anderson’s ‘sovereign’ sublime? (Anderson, 2006, p.6). The construction of the Highland tradition, as it is imagined today, required Irish culture to be supplanted with a re-written Scottish history (Trevor-Roper, 2009, p.57). It was initially offered up as truth in the eighteenth century by two writers: James MacPherson, and John MacPherson in their Anglophone Ossianic poems and then in Walter Scott’s Waverly which was critical to the modernization of Scottish cultural identity and aesthetic character, and notably written at a time where the difference between a fantasy Britain and reality was at its widest (Schama, 2006, p.242).

It could be argued, as Mixtli does in her blog, that if the aesthetic sublime is the force of will and reason, then the ‘sublime is expressed as the will of the nation made manifest in the aspiration for independence and autonomy’ (Mixtli, 2012). Scottish nationalism can be sublime if we believe that the national epic represents the homogenisation of a group which otherwise does not need to be connected. Here the epic stands for a change from group identity, to national identity. However, Mixtli fails to point out that the ‘force of disinterested aesthetic judgment, has historically served a specific political interest’ (Redfield, 2003, p.3), namely that of an acculturated middle class entitling themselves to speak for and therefore represent a national collective and the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment (Stafford, 1990). Nevertheless, when added to the equation that nationalism was a romantic invention by eighteenth century middle classes, it is revealed as lacking authenticity and is a ‘worthless, unproductive activity that lends itself to becoming the whole purpose of life’ (Klein, 1993, p.43). Richard Kline argues fervently that ‘cigarettes are sublime’ in his book of the same title. If then life is to be justified aesthetically, and not as specified by utilitarian principles, the logic of identity, manifestly beyond usefulness, can be claimed to be aesthetic. Nationalism, when viewed through the lens of a Kantian framework, serves no purpose and has no aim outside itself. Kline argues the same about cigarrettes that while ‘darkly alluring’ serve no useful purpose (Kline, 1993, p.22). We might call this disinterested interest. In considering nationalism, Kant would doubtless comment also on its enormity, and bestow upon nationalism the sublime of a ‘formless object’ (Kant, 1790 [2008], 78). Kant would likely argue that our cognitive ability to imagine the unimaginable is in itself sublime.

Yet in considering the national epic and Scottish nationalism through the postmodern eyes of Ranciere, it appears that social and cultural artefacts cannot be represented by artistic or literary means, acculturated or not.  Ranciere says that art is incapable of representing an event such as the one described, as an adequate commensurate can not be found (Ranciere, 2009, p.109). He goes on to make clear that artistic means cannot ‘represent’ based on the inadequacy of the properties of those means. In short, words cannot describe the magnitude of Scottish identity.  The complexity of Scottish nationalism cannot be characterised by a rendering of ‘surplus of presence’ and must resist any over-simplification of an unqualified artist or material (Ranciere, 2009, p.110). Furthermore, any representation of nationalism would be belittled by this ‘clumsy’ surplus of presence, resulting in the gravity and intricacies of Scottish Nationalism being lost to the effects of pleasure, play or distance (Ranciere, 2009, p.110). In fact, Ranciere asks for the discipline of aesthetics to be redefined as a ‘regime of identification’ (Ranciere, 2009, p.111). Although Ranciere contextualises his arguments around art, his theory can also apply to nationalism. He claims that social and historical periods alter perceptions of nationalism. Nationalism is a ‘tributary to the way it is perceived’ in discrete ages or regimes (Berrebi, 2009).

One such age is that of Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Irish philosopher and theorist. In unpicking the nationalist subtext in his book, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757, [2008]), it is evident that Burkes text presents ‘a strategy for maintaining Britain’s independence and security’ (Beaulne, 2000, p.1). Burke creates a model of ‘nation’ based on a relationship with masculinity and sublimity, where we find Burke associating the sublime with qualities such as  ‘fortitude, justice, [and] wisdom’ (Burke, 2008, p.100). Conversely Burke aligns the beautiful with femininity mentioning ‘easiness of temper, compassion, [and] kindness’ (Burke, 2008, p.100). His gendering of aesthetics continues as he describes the sublime authority of fathers and the beautiful compassion of mothers. Burke makes clear the authority the sublime has over the beautiful, with the sublime, like nationalism, demanding ‘admiration, reverence and respect’ (Burke, 2008, p.53). This is because is it almost impossible to be in the presence of the sublime without, as noted earlier, experiencing some degree of fear. Burke explains that ‘the power which arises from institution in kings and commanders [is associated with] terror’, whilst sovereigns are frequently addressed with the tide of dread majesty’ (Burke, 2008, p.62). The use of Burkes adjectives such as, ‘immensity, power, magnitude, grandeur and elegance’, which all represent sublimity, are all relics used by the eighteenth century middle classes, to write, and so to shape our nation-state (Trevor-Roper, 2013, p.117).

In conclusion, this essay has introduced Scottish nationalism, and then briefly presented a range of possible solutions to the essay question using aesthetics as a methodology. By applying Burkes theories of the sublime, it has been shown that nationalism can simultaneously be seen as both a horror and an envisaged beauty: terrifying in its unimaginable boundlessness, and beautiful in knowing that nationalism is little more than myth or fiction. By examining the writings of Anderson, it has also been shown that nationalism can be viewed as imagined. As such our quality of judgment can be seen through the teachings of Kant as one of ‘disinterested interest’. Through the lens of aesthetics, nationalism serves no particular function, although it does have properties such as the belief and defense of the nation, the enormity of which can all be contemplated, perhaps as a type of fearfulness, without being afraid. This allows a sense of reality, which goes beyond our common-sense encounters, where nationhood successfully unifies Scottish people by association in an unthinkable scale. If aesthetics is to be appreciated in part, as a shared emotional experience, then it provides the perfect device for examining the foundation of national community.


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Stroh, S., 2011. Uneasy Subjects: Postcolonialism and Scottish Gaelic Poetry. Amsterdam: Radopi B.V.

Trevor-Roper, H., 2009. The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History. London: Yale University Press

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