October 21st, 2006


The "It" System

Giving an interview to iCat FM radio yesterday before my show at CCCB here in Barcelona, I found myself trying to sketch out the basic stuff that matters to me. "I've been accused of exoticism and orientalism, but the important thing to me is to have basic respect for otherness -- whether that means preserving the language of Catalan, or staying Japanese rather than slipping into some diluted form of Americanism. America seems multi-racial, but in fact it isn't, everybody there is green. They're united by an interest in money, and race and culture pales into insignificance next to that."

Today I went to FNAC to buy tickets for the Gutevolk show tonight. FNAC is a big culture store. It started in France, but now seems to be doing well in Portugal and Spain too. The atmosphere is markedly different from, say, a Virgin Megastore or Tower Records. FNAC presents itself as a one-stop culture store rather than a discount emporium. In other words, where Anglos would be thinking about saving money, the French, Spanish and Portugese would be thinking more in terms of saving cultures.

That preoccupation is particularly strong in Barcelona, the urban centre of a very self-conscious, sometimes separatist cultural bloc within Spain, and within the EU. Once persecuted, Catalan-speakers are now encouraged and subsidised. Banessa Pellisa, for instance, who organised my show at CCCB, has just published a novel in Catalan. "In Scotland we have a similar situation with Gaelic," I tell her. But Gaelic is more of a lost cause, with fewer speakers and less, um, purchase. Perhaps because to have a language as powerful as English as your rival is more devastating than being up against mere Spanish.

Anyway, doing my usual stock-check to see what Momus records they had at FNAC (answer: Oskar and Otto), I noticed an interesting (and possibly somewhat obvious) thing. Here in Barcelona, all things being equal, you'd expect English language music to be "national". To Barcelona people it's foreign, after all. But my record was filed in the "International" section. FNAC has various national music sections, but you won't find UK or US music listed as "national music". The UK and the US -- music in English, by English-speakers -- are "International". They are fundamentally different -- the nations without a nation. The invisible core of a global system.

So everyone else gets to be "national": the other. We get to be "international". The It System. But for how long? Surely not forever. One day English speakers too will be "national". We'll get to be the delicate other that needs to be preserved, subsidised by the government, held up against the international power system as a reproach. And visited by reverent culture tourists.

(When this entry was posted, the lead item on The Guardian's website was US and UK seek Iraq exit strategy. The international "it" system is seeking to withdraw from a particular national "other", having failed to impose itself on it. Perhaps that "one day" is closer than we think.)