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3 - Beyond Reason: Hume, Seth, Macmurray and Scotland’s Postmodernity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2020

Cairns Craig
Affiliation:
University of Aberdeen
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Summary

I Scotland and the Postmodern

At the Walter Scott conference in Oregon in 1999, Jerome McGann pronounced Scott to be the first postmodernist, a judgment based on Scott’s deployment of various metafictional techniques and on his ironic combination of contradictory genres. The proposal was less surprising (to some, at any rate) than it might have been, given how regularly another Scottish novel of the early nineteenth century – James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner – is cited as prophetic of postmodernism in its use of multiple and conflicting narratives. Taken together, the implications of these prescient texts might suggest that there is something inherently postmodern about Scottish culture, or something in Scottish culture which leads its writers to exploit those sorts of narrative strategies that we now identify as typical of postmodernism.

It is a possibility that would be substantially endorsed by Scotland’s twentieth-century literary history, since many of the earliest examples of recognisably ‘postmodern’ writing in Britain were produced by Scots. Hugh MacDiarmid's In Memoriam James Joyce, for instance, first published in 1955, celebrates a poetry

… beyond all that is heteroepic, holophrastic,

Macaronic, philomathic, psychopetal,

Jerqueing every idioticon,

Comes this supreme paraleipsis,

Full of potential song as a humming bird

Is full of potential motion,

When, as we race along with kingfisher brilliance,

Seeking always for that which ‘being known

Everything else becomes known,’

That which we can only know

By allowing it to know itself in us,

Since ‘determinatio est negatio,’

Suddenly ‘chaos falls silent in the dazzled abyss.’

The extravagant use of quotation and paraphrase in MacDiarmid's late poems, producing a writing which is a palimpsest of re-iterations and re-inscriptions of previous language, undermines, as thoroughly as poststructuralist theorists such as Derrida or Barthes could have wished, any notion of the author as source and origin of the text. In the same year, W. S. Graham's The Nightfishing was published, inaugurating a poetry constructed around the selfreferentiality that was to become typical of postmodernist texts.

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Intending Scotland
Explorations in Scottish Culture since the Enlightenment
, pp. 145 - 178
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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