The Prince Consort's New Clothes

Date: Tue, 21 May 1996 16:05:12 +0200

From: (Marc Holthof)

The Prince Consort's New Clothes

On the Kilt and the Internet

Marc Holthof

A picture by Carl Haag dated 1854 exhibited in Windsor Castle's Royal Library, shows us "An Evening at Balmoral". The prince consort, Albert, offers up a freshly killed deer to his young bride Queen Victoria on the steps of the Scottish castle. The scene is illuminated by torch light. Just like the little boy at Queen Victoria's side, Prince Albert is wearing a short dress: he is wearing a kilt. His knee-high stockings are decorated with the typical Scottish plaid, the so-called "Tartan".

A chain of lies

Even today Edinburgh still entices tourists from all corners of the world with images of plaided bagbipe-players doing what they do best during the traditional tattoo. Even today you can buy Scottish tartan-kilts on Edinburgh's fancy Princess Street, together with other souvenirs and gimmicks whose single function it is to conjure up Scotland's rich past. Tartan-patterns are registered and approved by Lyon Court in consultation with the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. During the mid-sixties the Scottish Tartan Centre was founded in Stirling, where all Tartan-research is supposed to be done. The kilt, after all, is serious business.

In 1822 Victoria's predecessor George IV visited Edinburgh. This was the first time royalty from the house of Hannover visited the Scottish capital, so naturally all possible preparations were made to turn this visit into an incontestable success. The organizing committee was presided by famous novelist Sir Walter Scott and colonel David Stewart of Garth. The event ended in a genuine celebration of the Highland Clans, complete with plaid, bagpipes and kilts. Even the king (who was born in Germany) appeared in a kilt, took part in a Celtic parade en toasted the chiefs and clans of Scotland.

Thirty years later, in 1850, General James Browne published his 'History of the Highlands and the Highland clans', his definitive volume on both the noble Scottish tribes and the tartans, the colorful plaid with which they decorate their kilts. Twenty-two of the color illustrations in James Browne's classic work were plainly borrowed from the 'Vestiarum Scoticum'(1842) by John Sobieski Stuart. Of this beautifully illustrated volume, a masterwork of early color-printing, only 50 copies appeared in print. Much earlier, in 1829, the two Stuart brothers had already announced to rich Scotsman Sir Thomas Dick that they had an important manuscript in their possession: the manuscript was called 'Vestarium Scotticum or The Garderobe of the Scots', and used to belong to the personal confessor of Mary "Queen of Scots"; the manuscript was entrusted to their father by "Bonny Prince" Charles Edward Stuart, the legendary leader of the revolt against the English reign in 1745. In 1844 the Stuart brothers published a new work: 'The Costume of the Clans'. This beautiful folio was dedicated to King Ludwig I of Bavaria, "the restorer of the Catholic Arts of Europe". This was a monumental work, one of the milestones in the historiography of the kilt and the tartar-patterns. Unfortunately, 'The Costume of the Clans' never got the attention it deserved. So it wasn't the Stuart brothers but General James Browne who wrote the standard work on Scottish dress.

What had happened? Well, in 1846 the two Stuart brothers claimed the throne: they claimed to be the last surviving Stuarts to descend from Bonny Prince Charles himself. An article in the renowned 'Quarterly Review', however, thwarted their royal pretense. The brothers who kept court on a beautiful island near Inverness, were thus forced to flee to Pressburg. Later on in their lives they returned to London, where they died in poverty, but not without making some more unsuccessful claims on the English throne.

The brothers Stuart, alias Hay, but actually Allen (their name changed according to their romantic claims of illustrious lineage), were no more than colorful con artists. They were exposed, but their book on Highland attire lived on and was plundered by a number of interested parties. One of these was James Logan (who was seriously injured as a child when a hammer that was used during the Highland Games landed on his head) whose 'Clans of The Scottish Highlands' bore more than a superficial resemblance to the Stuart brothers' masterpiece. Another was General James Browne. They were all "inspired by" 'The Costume of the Clans' and 'Vestiarum Scoticum'.

Alas, as can be expected from professional hustlers like the Stuart brothers, their Costume of the Clans was based on ... nothing. The two authors loved to refer to mysterious sources that were nowhere to be found, like a manuscript containing poems by Ossian and other Celtic literature "that was acquired by late knight Watson in Douai, but is now unavailable", or a Latin manuscript from the fourteenth century that was found in a Spanish monastery which mysteriously disappeared, and of course their own 'Vestiarum Scoticum' which they dated back to the fifteenth century on the basis of "internal data". The truth was that no one, not even Sir Walter Scott, got to see the original manuscript. There is no connection between the tartan-patterns and the old Scottish clans. Everything was made up by the Stuart brothers to please a number of important weaving mills. A grand tradition which lives on till this very day is based on deceit and romantic fairy tales.

The Stuart brothers weren't the only forgerers in/of Scottish history. As early as 1760 another duo, the unrelated James Macpherson and the Reverend John MacPherson, had set the standard. With a couple of forgeries they succeeded in creating both an indigenous Scottish literature and a new history for the Highlands. To do this they had to put history on its head: James Macpherson plagiarized Irish ballads in composing his Ossian-epic, which he then claimed was an original text: the Irish ballads he had robbed he presented as an uninspired retelling of the original epic poems of Ossian. In 1807, after Macpherson's death, a falsified Celtic version of the Ossian-poems appeared in print (Macpherson had of course provided an English "translation"), of which quite a few words ended up in the Gaellic dictionary! James' partner and soulmate John Macpherson took care of the necessary historical background for the Ossian-forgery. According to this Macpherson The Scottish Highlands (which are shielded from the Lowlands by the Grampian Mountains) were not, as conventional history has it, colonized by Irish sailors during the sixth century. Macpherson provided a counter-history that had the Celts living in Scotland four centuries before that time, and claimed that the Irish had stolen their literature from the Scots, and in particular from that Celtic Homer: Ossian. James Macpherson, the actual inventor of Ossian, supported his partner's historical claims in his 'Introduction of the history of Great Britain and Ireland' (1771). Thus a chain of lies was established, that has not been broken till this day.

Still, not every Scotsman was equally enthusiastic about the whole Highland, tartan-kilt fuss. J.G. Lockhart, Walter Scott's son-in-law, wrote about his father-in-law's reception of George IV in 1822 as a "collective hallucination", in which the glory of Scotland was identified with the Celtic tribes that "constitute but a small, almost insignificant part of the Scottish people." Lord MacCauley, himself a Highlander, wrote that "the last British king who held a court in Holyrood thought that he could not give a more striking proof of his respect of the usages which had prevailed in Scotland before the Union, than by disguising himself in what, before the Union, was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a thief."

Lord MacCauley was right: the kilt, that prime symbol of the Scots, was not the notorious attire worn by the old Scottish clans. On the contrary: the kilt turns out to have been an invention of the despised British. Irish immigrants on the Scottish Westcoast wore the traditional Celtic "belted plaid": a draped blanket that was tied around the waist with a belt. The Lowland Scots wore plain trousers. It was an English industrial by the name of Thomas Rawlinson who first introduced the kilt. Rawlinson was the proud owner of an iron-foundry in Invergarry. He thought that the long Scottish blankets in which the Highlanders used to dress themselves were well suited for hunting or climbing mountains, but not for chopping wood and definitely not for foundring iron. This is why Rawlinson, together with the regimental tailor of Inverness, dreamt up the kilt: a short-skirted version of the "belted plaid".

The kilt got popular when Sir Walter Scott dressed it around the royal waist of George IV during that historical visit in 1822. Later on, the kilt was also worn by Albert, the prince consort. Both George and Albert were Germans (in 1847 Queen Victoria acquired the estate in Balmoral, where Prince Charles is still running around in his kilt today). So it turns out that Scotland's most important symbol was thought up by an Englisman, who was not thinking about safeguarding the traditional Scottish way of life but of purely modern, industrial considerations. It is also true that the kilt was promoted by the English royal family as a way to justify their authority over the whole of the British Isles. Once again, a romantic symbol is discovered to be a by-product of industrialization. Once again, a nationalistic emblem turns out to be a product of the modern nation-state.

I've talked about this history at length (it is also treated quite extensively in Hugh Trevor-Ropers' essay 'The Highland Tradition of Scotland' in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's classic 'The Invention of Tradition') because it's a classic case-study of a number of confusions, misunderstandings, lies, manipulations and forgeries that have led to a contemporary (in this case relatively innocent) reality: the tourist industry in Edinburgh and other crowd-pullers. The history of the kilt shows how fictions become incontrovertible "truths" even "traditions" because of political and industrial interests (Scottish nationalism and Scottish weavers). Equally absurd stories that are, however, a lot more horrible can be told about former Yugoslavia, Ruanda, Germany, ... And stories a lot more insignificant can be told about nationalism in Flanders.

Lie and Disorder

In his 'Wahrheit und Methode' (1960) Hans-Georg Gadamer stresses the importance of tradition. He claims (following Heidegger) that a fundamental unity exists between thought, language and the world. It is through language that the horizon of the "now" comes into being. This language, however, is always marked by the past. Through language the past lives on in the present and thus represents tradition. According to Gadamer the Enlightenment made an important mistake when it failed to take these "prejudices" and traditions seriously: the burden of the past was too easily discarded. Gadamer claims that it is tradition which shapes our ways of understanding and interpreting the world through language. And this tradition, he is well aware, does not exist of itself. It must constantly be embraced, comfirmed and cultivated. It also requires (but Gadamer doesn't tell us this) reinterpretation and pure make-belief.

In their latest book, 'Antiracisme', the Belgian linguists Blommaert & Verschueren are a lot more careful: "Diversity should be taken seriously. In this process it is the individual who takes centre stage, not the group. Groups are always constructed on a basis of arbitrary criteria, of which some are culturally inspired. Culture does exist in a general sense. And cultural differences are equally real, if only because they are experienced as a reality. But just as biology has shown that "race" does not exist (because there are no population groups that can unequivocally be described on the single basis of variable biological characteristics), cultures cannot be described as separate units." In a footnote Blommaert & Verschueren refer to Hobsbawm & Ranger's 'The Invention of Tradition', which we have cited above.

The kilt-problem that we're confronted with is the following: no matter how imaginary and fantastic it may be, no matter how closely it is tied to Macpherson & Macpherson, Walter Scott or the Stuart brothers, the lie has become a historical reality. The Highland-myth does exist. You can find it on any bottle of Scotch. You can buy kilts and tartan-fabrics on Princess Street. The fiction has become a reality. No matter how "fake" or forgered, tradition does exist.

The bankruptcy of communication

Inspired by his disgust with such fictions American mathematician and cyberneticist Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) attached new meaning to the term "communication". Wiener succeeded where others failed: "communication" has become a magic word. Just look at those slick youngsters with their cellular phones, at fax-addicts or the commuters on the information super-highway.

The truth is that communication also loves to present itself as a natural phenomenon: we all communicate, and are even unable not to communicate. Still, the description of human, animal and mechanical interaction in terms of communication is a fairly recent phenomenon. Communication studies only came into being after (and as a reaction to) the Second World War. Wiener's deal of the information-flow (based on apparatuses like the telegraph, the television or the radio) was designed as a reaction to the hiding and bending of information which the Nazis displayed in their discourse on the concentration camps. This means that communication studies have a clear ideological even political history: In response to the deviations of the Third Reich Wiener opted for a communications-model that sees users as individuals, and as individuals only. The possible communication between these different individuals should be as transparent as technology allows it to be. Wiener opted for a radical liberal-capitalist model as fighting tool against what Gadamer described as the weight of tradition.

What we have here is a collision between two models of society: on the one hand we have liberal democracy consisting of free individuals, on the other hand we have a republican model in which individuals serve the larger whole (community, tradition). Both models are potentially democratic (the republican alternative looks back to classic democracies in city-states like Athens), and both come with many pros and cons. In the liberal democracy the individual stays independent from group or tradition and is "free"; at the same time, he/she is also extremely unprotected and the possible puppet of strong economic forces. In this model the individual is alienated from governmental power, which can only be implemented through representation, go-betweens or a nomenclature of professional politicians. In the republican model the individual only exists as part of a group and is tied to that group and its traditions. The danger here is that this group can close ranks, cultivate an "us or them"-type response, become a racist whole in which minorities are excluded by the powerful majority. It is clear that existing Western democracies are an uneasy compromise between both models. We are at once civilians with individual rights and subjects of the "res publica", a common ground which does not always imply solidarity.

Wiener's communication-model is therefore not an innocent description of a universal and eternal human phenomenon. It is an implicit model of society: Wiener opted for American liberal democracy. This is why communication as he sees it has all the traditional disadvantages of that social doctrine. All users are equal: a nice democratic ideal, but one which stays completely blind to real differences, to "context", to tradition (no matter how imaginary that tradition may be). All transmitters/receivers are functionally equal in the communication-process, since communication is a typically quantitative ideal: what is right for the average user, is right for everybody.

Wiener's second important enemy (after tradition) was the noise he described in explicitly theological terms: the entropy that disabled or unabled communication was seen as "the negative devil of Saint Augustine, which he calls imperfection." Coincidence is the big adversary of communication. Only order, a perfect organisation can reduce the entropy in the information-exchange. Coincidence or no coincidence, Wiener's new science of cybernetics (the study of control and communication) did not become a success. The term "cybernetics" has now become hopelessly dated (only the cyber-part is occasionally recycled in neologisms like "cyberspace"). Wiener's cybernetics was swallowed whole by information theory and computer science. The influence of Wiener's utopia on the ways in which we perceive information, however, remains substantial. The information super-highway and the internet are but the latest manifestations of the illusion that information is something that you either have or don't have, something you can send as a transparent package from A to B. If chance or Augustine's devil don't interfere, that is...

The sleep of reason produces monsters

The short history of the computer is somewhat similar to the long history of humanity from the middle ages to the present. Let's take it from the beginning: when the first room-size tubes-computer was built during the Second World War, the computer was a state moloch. Ownership of a computer was the privilege of the state or big companies. The computer-user was completely subservient, a slave of the big central computer that was operated by priests-programmers. The sixties saw the emergence of a terminal-bourgeoisie: at that time everybody with access to a terminal was allowed to steal a couple of cycles from the central computer through time sharing. The actual computer revolution occurred in 1978 when the breakthrough of personal computers promoted the user to the status of lord and master of his/her own processer, harddisk, monitor and printer. This golden age of total user-control (which, by the way, was handily manipulated by software and hardware companies enforcing newer and faster machines to get similar results with more "flashy" but also slower programmes) did not last long. Under the spiritual auspices of Wiener's "communication" we have now reached a period of restoration. Networks are uniting individual users, and emphasizing information-transmission and telecommunication over number crunching and word processing. Together we log into the big information super-highway. This sounds really exciting, but may well turn out to be a disguised return to the days of slavery.

Until 1978 companies like IBM got all their power from the general scarcity of computer time. Now that everyone has their own PC, the hot commodity of computer time is replaced by the artificially induced hunger for information. The internet, on which most of the information provided by academic and other non-profit communities is still free, is the lubricant that will slide us over to the information super-highway. In the wings, the thought-police are greasing their batons. While the internet is gradually deteriorating into a swarm of noisy chat groups that threaten to stop all traffic, all "important" information (with copyright) is being commercialized and commodified by Compuserv, Prodigy, America on line, Delphi and other commercial networks. Sure, the internet is still a lot of fun. You can send email to Bill and Hillary and other "email addresses of the rich and famous." And if they check their email as regularly as I do, you're bound to get a standard response sometime next year that starts with the standard address "Dear <name>". You can even order your pizza through the internet (if you're living in Santa Cruz, CA that is). But very soon only multinational pizza-companies will be able to profit from that exchange. Hollywood is planning to send its movies to theaters all over the world via the information super-highway. A sure bet to keep copies from being intercepted by film- or video-pirates. Freedom of communication, you say?

As soon as we're connected to the information superhighway, we start paying bills: for the connection itself, very often for the information we want to receive, for use of the phone (and of course for the computer itself and the electricity it needs). Instead of free information, we have information that is artificially transformed into a desired yet scarce commodity. Commercial servers networks are still letting you get through to the whole internet-bonanza, but the demand for tight control over the anarchistic, "uncontrollable" net is getting stronger everyday. The so-called faults and misuses, the lack of security, the so-called "pornography" (mostly scanned centerfolds), the piracy, the free software, and the general absence of control, are the motivations behind the transformation of the utopian information super-highway into a tollbooth-scattered road that harks back to the Ancien Régime of the 18th century.

The question we have to raise is whether the information super-highway will indeed establish communication between individuals in different parts of the world (at least, between those who can afford a computer), or whether it will turn out to be yet another pseudo-democracy. The distribution of fictitious equal rights (as far as computer time is concerned) appears to be no more than a façade for a new class struggle. Old Marx always said that you should own your own means of production. During the nineteenth century this was quite a problem: where does a labourer get a sufficiently modern, sufficiently productive weaving-loom or melting-furnace? The PC-revolution solved this problem once and for all: everyone (in the prosperous West) can now own a sufficiently powerful computer with relatively limited cost. This is precisely the reason why the centre of power has shifted: from the means of production to the base material. A new balance of power comes into being: a balance between those who own the base material, who own the information (and are starting to charge increasing amounts of money for their services), and those who (think they) need that information. The utopian naïvety of the internet functions in this context like the Robbespierre of the information age. The so-called inefficiency, the excess and dangers are seen by the information-owners as a kind of virtual terror. They provide good reason to demand regulation, coding and security, to charge money for every byte, nay bit of information of which they have acquired the rights.

The functioning of the goose quill

To a large extent, all so-called information on the net (the internet and the commercial networks) is make-belief. If you're having a technical problem with your computer, there's always someone in some part of the world who can solve that problem for you. There's bound to be some sort of programme that holds the solution to your problem, a programme that works better, can restore a lost file or solve a nasty problem. A big, nay huge part of the net is taken up by this kind of problems and solutions. Is this information? If it is, then we have to look at Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie as a big book filled with useful advice, tips and tricks on how to have your goose quill function properly!

Another part of the net is crammed with chat groups and virtual chatter, the electronic equivalent of the old village square. These groups often pretend to be talking about important social issues (besides computers and sex), but unless you're in the mood to reread tons and tons of material they're about as efficient as bar-talk: very soon all participants (if they're still there after ten minutes) will have forgotten what they typed fifteen minutes before. (In this sense there is a connection between the internet and the kilt: they're both woolly claptrap and they both serve the needs of their manufacturer.)

In the spirit of daddy Wiener the communication highway starts from the assumption that there is a hole somewhere that needs to be filled with information, and that there is a neat pile of information somewhere else that will fit that hole perfectly. One question, one (right) answer. Of course, this is not the best way to discover something really new. There is no excess, no surplus in this kind of communication. It is a tautological process which realizes no more than what you already (virtually) knew. Everything fits neatly into its proper square, into its proper little file.

As always, there is an alternative. One can always parade around the virtual world of the super-highway in old-fashioned Benjamin-style, tying together bits and pieces of information in the most ludicrous way imaginable. In principle this should work better in virtual surroundings than anywhere else. The only problem is that poor Benjamin could never have afforded this kind of electronic promenade: even if you turn back at every toll-booth, you'll never get away with just a pair of worn-out shoes and a cup of coffee on a terrace somewhere. And when you've completed your promenade and return with those few nuggets of gold you managed to get out of the information-mountain, what will you do with the result, with the insights you have gathered: throw them back in with the rest?

The uncertainty of identity

Maybe we should move away from Wiener's communication and return to the kilt and those famous brothers Stuart. Go back to the time when information, whether true or false, still had an effect on the world. Maybe we should return to what Wiener hated so much, to the one thing his type of communication did not know what to do with: tradition. Wiener forgot one thing: communication, information, bits and bytes, don't mean anything without interpretation. Without making the connections in which a promeneur like Benjamin excelled. Gadamer's 'Wahrheit und Methode' (or 'Lie and Disorder', as I prefer to call it) is precisely about interpretation. What is interpretation? Well, maybe interpretation is to create traditions, to imitate the brothers Stuart, alias Hay, alias Allen, to let Augustine's devil have his fun, to let coincidence decide, to fully exploit noise: to write fake genealogies, to knit kilts, to compose tartan-catalogues that are based on nothing. The (unfortunate?) truth is that we all need tradition to be and become ourselves, to build our identities. Instead of fanatically believing in the truth of this tradition, we should create and imagine one for ourselves. Just picture the internet as thought out by the brothers Stuart!

[This essay first appeared in AS/Andere Sinema 123, september 1994. Translation: Tom Paulus.]