Narratives and discourse communities

by Paul Maharg on 11/07/2015

Last week by kind permission of Joshua Neoh I gave a session on Scots law and culture in his Law and Humanities course at ANU  – taking the shape of the rest of the course, it consisted of a one-hour lecture, followed by around 90 mins discussion and questions.  Slides over on Slideshare, and up on the slides tab above (which is fixed now, BTW).  What was it about?

Here’s my original session outline and reading:

Law and culture: Scots languages, legal narratives and discourse

1.  Scott, W.([1827] 1896). The Two Drovers.  In: Chronicles of the
Canongate.  Edinburgh, Constable.    Plain text available here.
2.  The Angels Share (film extract, to be viewed in class)

1.  Swales, J. (1990).  The concept of discourse community.  In Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings, Boston, Cambridge UP, 21-32.  Available in Downs, D., Wardle, E. (2011). Writing About Writing: A College Reader.  Boston, Bedford St Martin’s, 466-79, here.
2.  Goodrich, P. (1988) Modalities of annunciation. An introduction to courtroom speech.  In: R. Kevelson (ed), Law and Semiotics, Plenum Press, New York, 143-65.
3.  The Angels’ Share, Production Crew Notes
4.  Archibald, D. (2012).  The Angels’ Share at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.  NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies, 2, Autumn 2012.
5.  Martin-Jones, D. (2013).  The Angels’ Share: Ken Loach and Paul Lavery lift Scotland’s kilts to expose its darker parts,   Senses of Cinema, 66.

As you’ll see from the first two-thirds of the slides, lots on the Scots Enlightenment background of natural law, which I hope was useful to give students a sense of part of the legal and cultural backdrop to The Two Drovers and to Scott as a writer and lawyer steeped in eighteenth century literary and legal discourses.  It included the discourse of natural law, the place of rights, Scott’s place as an author in a new capitalist publishing nexus that made his fortune and bankrupted him, his use of law in literature, his conservative politics, his role as a conservator and interpreter of Scots culture, and as a trusted liminal figure who could thus acted as a guarantor of the authenticity of his versions of Scots history and culture.  And discourse communities, legal, cultural and narrative, found their way into the class discussion.  But I removed Loach’s film from the final line-up.  The more I planned out the session, the more I realised I was packing too much into it.  I needed more time with students to look at discourse, language and genre.  From both a discourse and Scottish cultural point of view, too much to explore.  Ideally I’d want to expand the unit to another 3 hours or so, where we’d explore other texts and film extracts too; so maybe that can happen next year, if Joshua can find the time.  It will also leaven the session with some comedy, too…

But for this session, I couldn’t leave a discussion of discourse in a Scottish legal and literary context without reference to what was happening to Scotland now, constitutionally and culturally.  Partly to replace the film, I took some images of the May General Election in Scotland to explore with students, and try to describe what happened to Scots culture and public life – first the Yes campaign last September, and the subsequent ascendancy of the SNP, who lost the Referendum economic argument, but won its cultural and constitutional arguments.  I discussed the sense of ground-up change that Scots spoke of, argued about, made plans for, expected to happen.  As Neil Ascherson said in his poignant, confident article post-Referendum:

So this long campaign has changed Scotland irrevocably. Campaign? I have never seen one like this, in which it wasn’t politicians persuading people how to vote, but people persuading politicians. At some point in late spring, the official yes campaign lost control as spontaneous small groups set themselves up and breakfast tables, lounge bars, bus top decks and hospital canteens began to talk politics. What sort of Scotland? Why do we tolerate this or that? Now, in Denmark they do it this way…

So we discussed the politics of change, that went beyond party politics even when apparently locked into the usual binary divides:


And the ancient references – salus populi suprema lex, called up by Scott in The Two Drovers, put by Stevenson with such irony in the mouth of the Lord Advocate in Catriona, and the debates that stretch back through James Lorimer, William Hamilton, Adam Ferguson, Francis Hutcheson, George Buchanan, to Renaissance and Roman Stoic sources – they too were present in the Referendum in the most direct graffiti, literally ground-up,

referendum day

(Sam voted yes, since you ask)  And in the resonances between this statement –


and the work of Alasdair Gray, on the Canongate Wall of the Scottish Parliament:


that Gray quotes from the Canadian poet, Dennis Lee – in many respects the rhetorical opposite of the speech Tacitus gives to Calgacus before Mons Graupius in the Agricola.   Part of the work that Gray talks of, in his political writings as well as his novels, is a re-creation of the narrative of the nation – not in the sense that Scott has it in The Antiquary[1] but in the way that Edwin Morgan does in Sonnets from Scotland, or Cairns Craig in Intending Scotland, or histories such as Tom Devine’s trilogy on Scottish emigration, or novels such as James Robertson’s magnificent And the Land Lay Still.  Morgan’s 44th sonnet in the series of 51 can stand for all such explorations, archaeologies and re-imaginings:

The Coin
We brushed the dirt off, held it to the light.
The obverse showed us Scotland, and the head
of a red deer; the antler-glint had fled
but the fine cut could still be felt. All right:
we turned it over, read easily One Pound,
but then the shock of Latin, like a gloss,
Respublica Scotorum, sent across
such ages as we guessed but never found
at the worn edge where once the date had been
and where as many fingers had gripped hard
as hopes their silent race had lost or gained.
The marshy scurf crept up to our machine,
sucked at our boots. Yet nothing seemed ill-starred.
And least of all the realm the coin contained.

So ironic, bearing in mind that the only real argument of the No campaign was negative economics.  The arguments for independence were much more multi-faceted, amongst them the view that our political identity in the world needed to change if we were to become the civic society that we wanted to be.   And bearing that in mind, the need for a powerful narrative of identity and change, it becomes clear why Labour collapsed so utterly in Scotland at the General Election.  There was no narrative of change coming from them, just the same old discourse: we are the opposite of the Tories so you must vote for us.  But it was clear to everyone in Scotland that they weren’t the opposite of the Tories, indeed had stood beside them on the Referendum platforms when people cried out for a new political discourse, a new sense of community.  In the election, many of those who voted SNP included No voters, who still wanted that change for the better, even if independence couldn’t be their preference.

If I’d had the time I would have shown students the short videos made by John Harris on The Guardian website.  There was hardly a better commentary made during the election – The Strange Death of Scottish Labour, which was so revealing of the empty, patronising Labour assumption of power, built upon invincible majorities that had existed for decades in Scotland; and their sense that it was all,  bafflingly, slipping away from them. Or the anti-Scots resentment in The View from Middle England – subtitled (in a quote from a voter in the Tory/Labour marginal of Nuneaton, which was described by Harris as the sort of place that has a sense of ‘low-level grievance’) ‘If the Scottish get in with Labour … we’re done for’.  See 5.26 onwards, where from the evidence of talking to voters vox pop style, Harris describes how Scots are categorised by them alongside benefit claimants and immigrants as a sub-class to be despised and feared (one voter, at 6.31: ‘they get everything buckshee as it is, don’t they, they get free prescriptions, university fees. Yeah. Yeah’).  As Harris says at the end of that video, echoing his comments at Indyref, ‘Britain’s in trouble’.  He’s right.  In the election Bella Caledonia voted as if she were living in the early days of a better nation.  How long before the salus populi is invoked by the Scottish government as the suprema lex?  Here’s hoping I’ll have to redraft the slides radically before the next time I hold this class.

  1. [1]Where Scott satirises the the historical novelist’s apparent freedom, moving between fiction and history:

    ‘”Let me see – What think you of a real epic? – the grand old-fashioned historical poem which moved through twelve or twenty-four books – we’ll have it so – I’ll supply you with a subject – The battle between the Caledonians and Romans – The Caledoniad; or, Invasion Repelled – Let that be the title – It will suit the present taste, and you may throw in a touch of the times.”
    “But the invasion of Agricola was not repelled.”
    “No; but you are a poet – free of the corporation, and as little bound down to truth or probability as Virgil himself – You may defeat the Romans in spite of Tacitus.”

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