Who are we?

Holidays over, I’m back to work with a bang this week. The orchestra is taking part in a festival of music by the American minimalist composer Steve Reich. Along with his Eight Lines we’re rehearsing a couple of pieces by New Yorker Nico Muhly and works by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead and Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Ros. I also wrote two articles for The Irish Times – a book review on Irish Ballet from 1927 to 1963 and a feature on avant-garde flamenco. It seems a pretty disparate workload, but I’m used to wearing different hats and compartmentalising my life: it’s what us external students do so well.

In the past few years I’ve been asked to write, both in the popular press and academic publications, about how Irish traditional dance has been “globalised” by shows like Riverdance and Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance, I was reminded of this when researching avant-garde flamenco dancers . What used to be a localised cultural pursuit in Andalusia has been elevated to high art status and popularised throughout the world. (There are more flamenco schools in Japan than in Spain.) And this got me thinking again about tradition versus innovation and local or national identity versus global identity.

This tension between the local, national and global is a constant in my International Relations studies. It not only defines broad ideological viewpoints – the state-centric Realists or more global-viewing Revolutionists – but it’s central to a lot of the issues that arise around international interaction.

And, of course, “globalisation” is at the heart of much of this debate. It’s one of those “contested terms” that I’ve discovered studying IR, along with words and phrases like balance-of-power, nationalism, sovereignty, regimes…the list goes on. Contested terms, I’ve grown to learn, are words that I have freely sprinkled into my conversation before now, only to now realise that I’ve been using them inaccurately or out of context.

So has flamenco been “globalised”? Hmm. It is certainly now a global cultural product but it still retains a potent relationship to local practice. And there’s an example of another thing that I’ve learnt. The classic social science fudge answer that sits on the fence and sees everything from both points of view.

What’s been striking this week is the difference between the attitude of Irish ballet dancers fifty years ago who were obsessed with notions of cultural purity, and modern-day flamenco dancers who are happy to absorb influences from contemporary dance or rock stars who are curious enough to write works for orchestras.

Nowadays categories are blurred and there is a more fluid interaction between different parts of our lives or cultural practice. Our identities aren’t exclusively defined by our job: we can be a hard-working professional by day and a hard-working UoL student by night (and weekend). But it’s not just our identities. Even the simplest words we use to describe ourselves have become “contested terms”. When does a “rock star” become a “composer” or a “flamenco dancer” become an “avant-garde flamenco dancer”? Or,indeed, a [FILL IN YOUR OWN OCCUPATION] become a UoL student?

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