Effie Samara is a playwright and PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, investigating exilic consciousness and dramaturgies of Resistance. Her stage work includes SARTRE, Baby and the Jew of Portingall. She is currently under commission to develop LESBOS a play about the geopolitics of female arrivals into Europe, written in Cantos. She contributes extensively on the idea of theatre as a discursive intersection between philosophy and politics and on the theory of dramaturgical movement against the backdrop of Scotland’s unique place in Europe and the world. Effie is 2016 winner of the Tom MacGrath Trust Award.
The article contains my personal views based on a thought experiment which seeks to demonstrate, via examples of political behaviour, the ways in which Nicola Sturgeon can be understood as a “dangerous women”. I have chosen to examine the Sturgeon phenomenon through the lens of French philosopher Derrida whose theories on the State, sovereignty and the power of writing are today more relevant than ever. Two new publications have shed new light on Derrida’s oeuvre: (Cheah, P. & Guerlac, S. eds. (2010) Derrida and the Time of the Political, New York: Duke University Press and Phillips, J.W.P. ed. (2016) Derrida Now, Cambridge: Polity Press). Both works address Derrida’s philosophy, filling a gap in the Anglo-American analysis of his later contributions known as the ethical turn in relation to Derrida’s entire philosophical corpus and his innovations on metaphysics.
I was particularly inspired to write this contribution when I learned that one of the reasons the Dangerous Women Project had been mounted was because of attempts to side-line Nicola Sturgeon by calling her a “dangerous woman”. I hope to demonstrate that her being “dangerous” can be a powerful weapon against the newly emerging forces of neo-totalitarianism—sugar-coated as “patriotism”—timidly making a comeback on today’s political stages.
Guy de Maupassant, the French naturalist writer, made it a habit of his to eat at the restaurant on the top floor of the Eiffel Tower even though he had professed a dislike for the food they served. “It’s the only place where I don’t have to see it” making it plain to everyone that the authoritative edifice known as the Eiffel Tower was the object of his utter displeasure.
As authoritative places go, the only way one can be liberated from the idea of an Eiffel Tower is by positioning both feet squarely on the ground of the top floor and stopping the structure from organising everything for them into a preordained pattern. In short, you can only bring down the edifice of authority from within. This is where I see the meeting point between Nicola Sturgeon and the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s corpus is dizzying so I shall limit myself to reminding everyone that this is the man whose perilous propositions on the metaphysics of presence created tremors across the academic and political scenery of the 80s and 90s. The Derridean project is one of liberating philosophy from the tyranny of the tall edifice “at the centre” of everything. His theory of Deconstruction dismantles philosophical positions by reading text in a way that it demonstrates an unconscious commitment precisely against that which it overtly propounds.
For some years now, Scotland and England have been on a collision course. Sturgeon’s Derridean tremor was the one event destined to de-centre Westminster’s unassailability: she just put herself at the top of the Tower and, using politics as a unifying force, she divested authority’s self-appointed custodians of their entitlement to exclusive truths. Politically, Sturgeon’s international stardom was inaugurated on the morning of 24 June. Her address to the world’s media from Bute House catapulted her into a dangerous domain: she would either succumb to the perennial temptation of the us-versus-them base argumentation or she would exceed political polarisation by rising above it.
Philosophically, Sturgeon’s argument holds precisely because it transcends party politics, it demonstrates the self-destructibility of an ideology based on divisiveness and the convenient demonisation of the Other. Against that mirror, Derrida’s concept of auto-immunity brilliantly demonstrates the self-evident truth that political ills will not be cured by a prescription of antibodies that mirror the invading antigens and bond with them, inevitably killing them in the end. The implications of this metaphor are clear. The appropriate strategy for ethnic fervour is not ethnic cleansing, but open, public institutions. Sturgeon’s perilous argument has paid off: regardless of one’s beliefs in relation to Scotland’s place within the UK, it is now plain and simple that a politics of ethnically-driven ‘cleanliness’ would be like pouring gasoline on the fire of disunity, like administering enormous doses of over-reactive “treatments” that fail to discriminate the body from its attackers and which will inevitably end up actually feeding the pathogens.
There is something paradigmatic in this autoimmune suicide: the tragedies inflicted on Europe after the Weimar Republic and the worldwide discontents of that era which led to the extermination of over 40 million innocents in WWII, offer us ample proof that leadership can and should have risen above the self-destructive pathogen of populist polarisation. I think we should let Derrida expand on this in his own inimitable style in ‘Rogues: Two Essays on Reason’ delivered in 2002: “Historically, fascist and Nazi totalitarianisms ascended to power through formally normal and formally democratic electoral processes. . . The aporia in its general form has to do with freedom itself: must a democracy leave free and in a position to exercise power those who risk mounting an assault on democratic freedoms and putting an end to democratic freedom in the name of democracy and of the majority that might actually be able to rally around to their cause? . . . When assured of a numerical majority, the worst enemies of democratic freedom can, by a plausible rhetorical simulacrum . . . present themselves as staunch democrats. That is one of the perverse and autoimmune effects of the axiomatic”.
Scotland has earned her place on the world stage. The validity of Sturgeon’s neo-Scottish identity lies in that it has not been subsumed under the pathologically dyspeptic form of Brexited Englishness which now tragically encompasses racialized, imperialist and pseudo-elitist undertones. By embracing the Other, Sturgeon has proven that the lament of Brexit is the brutal admission that whilst Englishness is now defined by an exclusionary model, Scottishness has come to be defined as an inclusionary paradigm of responsible statesmanship.
The history of Scotland written between two seas, one connecting her to Europe, the other to Ireland and beyond, is a history written in blood, struggles and a constant reminder of exile within what one is repeatedly assured is one’s own country. Certain English elites have historically positioned Scotland within the space of province or thereabouts. Sturgeon’s perilous provocation is situated precisely in her ability to hold up a map of the British Isles and show the world that English historical metabolism has suffered an unfortunate digestive disorder; slicing through the top layer of flesh she reveals an intestine twisted from centuries of conquest and defeat, millennia of imposing and being imposed upon, from the inescapable fallibility of our human condition that, like a bloated gut, is here to remind us, time and again that movement is inevitable; movement is what separates life from death and others must and will enjoy it as we unashamedly do.
Without movement, any political entity is condemned to precisely that: immobility: in other words, a slow and painful death. Any country (and I use the term advisedly as there is really no evidence that a country is anything other than a territory bound by fluid, changeable rules) that, in the name of ethnic purity and dogma, has ever attempted to foreclose the possibility of movement from within or from without, has suffocated on its own toxic fumes.
Sturgeon’s philosophy is fearlessly one of the call of Cosmopolitanism to Come. The notion of a “call” plays a pivotal role in Derrida’s analysis of democracy. This voice from the past, from the legacy of European democracy and cosmopolitanism, is not a party-political marketing strategy, instead, it “gestures toward the past of an inheritance only by remaining to come” as Derrida writes in ROGUES, it is an anticipatory promise, a hope gesturing towards a new, conciliatory arrival. In the context of new arrivals, another Scottish innovation has come to inhabit larger Derridean freedoms: the somewhat derisory term of “refugee” has institutionally been replaced by the term “New Scot” designating to new arrivals a topological and existential locus, a “khōra”, a place beyond all places, an existence where safety is an incontrovertible and uncontestable right.
Following and revising Plato, Derrida speaks of what we can consider to be the event of all events, the Platonic “khōra.” Khōra, as named by Plato in his cosmological account of the Universe in the Timaeus, is an all-encompassing event because it “comes before everything” and designates the “place” of the legacy of Europe as well as what is innately linked to Europe, “the call for a thinking of the event to come, of the democracy to come”. Though it comes first, the khōra does not exist for itself. It exists instead as that which makes a place of the legacy of democracy and its anticipation, its “to come.” Gendered female, the khōra, in line with Derrida’s concept of Différance, safeguards its aloofness allowing her author to avoid positing it as teleological account of geopolitical dimensions, thereby enabling democracy’s character of being unfinalizable. Scotland, a space, a country within a country is not only synchrony but also diachrony with all that was said and all that is still anticipated to be said. Structure and Genesis as political bedfellows.
It would be impossible to resist a more feminist reading when the king is a woman, an embodiment of a female straddling the boundaries of gender, of historical precedence and permissiveness. Nicola Sturgeon is the first woman to position a kingdom against a kingdom evoking the virtues of a larger unity. She is the first explicitly to problematise the female body in both its capacities: the private sphere of the woman’s body natural and the public body of the queen/king as an un-gendered entity who is vested with political authority. Her speech on the morning of the 24 June enacted a dual performance of masterful rhetoric silencing the Elders, the Chorus and the doubters and ending with a message of inclusivity against the truncated screams booming out of Westminster’s amplifiers: “Scotland is your home”. Weaving linguistics into philosophy, the provocation in this sentence is inescapable: “Scotland” defining choric emplacement serves as subject in both the existential and the predicate use of the verb ‘to be’. In turn, “home” empowers the copula and lets language bleed into metaphysics. “Home” confounds the public and the private through the use of its own gorilla tactics, it mixes male oratory persuasion and female ritual language: Strategically utilised in Sturgeon’s address, the terms “Home” and “Constitution”, open up a possibility of linguistic and political play between the acceptable and the unacceptable, provoking her immediate audience, provoking the entire world. She provokes by stretching language, by using “home” where her opponents had threatened deportation; she provokes by opening up a non-topological centre of mimetic symbolism that promises the democracy still to come, that same tormented “democracy” which her interlocutors had auto-immunised against.
Danger lies under every rock when a woman leads but refuses to be led. Danger lies even deeper when a woman proposes to undo the traditional safety mechanisms of national identity and deconstruct zones of historically sanitised comfort. Ontologically, Sturgeon’s unflinching rebuff of the unending process of identification with the Empire is her most dangerous politics yet. The very Empire in which—Dickensian realism never fails to remind us—a select 0.1% were the commanders of governance, jurisprudence and pseudo-morality and the remaining 99.9% hankered after romanticised Arthurian legends where handsome Saxon warlords brandishing the Excalibur reappear, this time flipping chicken breasts at McDonald’s and causing the swift evaporation of all Eastern European staff, while at the same time a Brexited sequel to the Bible recasts Jesus as a man born in Mayfair whose daily bread pops out of the iced cupcake counter in Harrods.
It takes a lot of courage to rebel against the sequel.
It takes even more courage to threaten the perceived “natural order of things” and name someone a New Scot when he’s already consigned himself to the demoted status of refugee.
And, as a woman, it takes a lot of courage to be dangerous. To not get vertigo when you’re eating your dinner on the top floor of the Eiffel Tower.
It turns out Nicola Sturgeon is not afraid of heights.