Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Are there really no innocent songs?

One of the speakers who caused the most breaktime-buzz at the IFACCA World Summit was Stojan Pelko, the State Secretary in the Slovenian Ministry of Culture. After a tour-de-force of Minister-as-tourism-advocate from the Jamaican Minister of Culture, this was a totally different kettle of fish. There may be other State Secretaries who end by exploring a metaphor from Gilles Deleuze, but I’ve missed them so far.

His topic was whether cultural diversity was the source of world peace or the root of all conflict. Coming from a part of the former Yugoslavia, as he put it, once you have known poets shooting from the hills it is hard to see culture as therapy or something than can overrule ‘real power’. Using a devasting clip from Goran Markovic’s The Tour, he suggested that in global capitalism ‘there are no innocent songs’, and that the discontinuities of history - where old certainties break down - are where the universalities emerge. (Certainly at that point, this seemed a world away from the ‘dodgy advocacy’ I mentioned yesterday, and suggests a positive outcome to recession.)

Where the arts could be ‘real arms’, Pelko argued, was in creating what he called ‘subterranean solidarities’ – by encouraging a sense of non-identity with the collective where people became ‘raw, free and vulnerable’. (As opposed, I take it, to the security of common identity and values that can, in extremis, lead to intolerance.)

He then concluded by exploring the central images of a short text by Gilles Deleuze, ‘Desert Islands’. (You can find this on Scribd here. It’s a very short essay and well worth reading - and not as difficult as much of his later work.) At the time this simply resonated as a metaphor, and I’ve yet to have chance to read the full text of Pelko’s talk, so I may have misinterpreted things. Deleuze sets out how islands are of two sorts, which I think now may be both two kinds of cultures, but also apply to different strands of artistic practice. There are he says, continental islands, ‘accidental, derived islands… separated from a continent, born of disarticulation, erosion, fracture; they survive the absorption of what once contained them’ and oceanic islands that ‘are originary, essential islands…display a genuine organism.’ (There’s no suggestion one is better than another.)

Deleuze says ‘Continental islands serve as a reminder that the sea is on top of the earth, taking advantage of the slightest sagging in the highest structures; oceanic islands, that the earth is still there, under the sea, gathering its strength to punch through the surface.’ That speaks to me of tradition and innovation, of growth and decay, of the power relations within culture over time. This is where Pelko seemed to take his talk, suggesting a need to ‘become the stranger’ on the desert island, before moving from solitary to solidarity, in the knowledge that songs will not save alone but must be seen in relation to real power. As he said, quoting Delueze in French, ‘il faut l’imagination collectif…’

Metaphors defy the need for practical conclusions, so I’m going to refrain from drawing any right now. I’ll end with an amusing and provoking quote from Deleuze’s essay Stojan Pelko didn’t refer to, but I’ve written down for future use as the epigram to a poem:

‘That England is populated will always come as a surprise; humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents’.

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