Play and Technology in the Outer Hebrides (first published in Nyx 2009)
In August last year, I arrived by plane to Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides and was then driven south from there to South Uist. Benbecula is an incredibly flat island in the middle of a chain of mountainous ones, with a main highway connecting the islands by a series of causeways. It feels like the top of the world. South Uist on the other hand is almost split in two by its landscape. It has white sandy beaches and the machair (vast tracts of meadow growing over sand) on one side of the island, and mountains, inlets and small lochs on the other. There are no trees and just a random scattering of large boulders and pebble-dashed concrete houses, the boulders outnumbering the houses by around three to one. Desolate and wild, there is always a wind, even if only a light south-westerly.
I was on this tiny island off the west coast of Scotland as a “Post Production Mentor” for a First Light young people’s film project initiated and produced by my sister Sam Firth. First Light is an arm of the UK Film Council dedicated to making young people’s films. The programme emphasises the role of the young participants in driving the projects.
This particular group of young people was mostly made up of boys aged 12 to 14 and one girl aged 16. They wanted to make a film about a number of wild ponies they help to look after and ride in their spare time. This film would be called Ponies Left in the Past (a title decided by the group). The ponies are owned by Eoghan, locally known as the Mullach because he was originally from the isle of Mull. The young people’s aim was to bring to the attention of people on the island the importance of the ponies so they would not die out. These ponies are a particularly rare breed that originally came from the island of Eriskay, just south of South Uist. There are very few of them left. The young people were worried that South Uist would be overdeveloped to the point where the ponies would disappear. They were worried that too many houses and roads would be built, overtaking the island. Coming from London, where pretty much every space is built-up, this was a little difficult to understand. Given the landscape and the desolate nature of the place, the island didn’t seem to be in any danger of being overdeveloped.
The young people were keen to make a film that set up an opposition between ponies as good on the one hand and cars and tractors as bad on the other. The actual situation was far more complicated and full of contradictions. In fact these contradictions were apparent both in the footage they had shot and in the young people’s own day to day lives, and completely contradicted the argument they wanted to make. For example, the scattered settlements on South Uist are connected by roads that wind around all the inlets and lochs, so although the distances are small, it can take some time to travel between houses. Consequently the young people are by necessity ferried around in cars by their parents. It would be impossible to get around the island without them. Even so, some of the young people insisted they should return to using the ponies for getting around. For them, the cars and tractors seemed to embody a technology that threatened a particular notion of Hebridean life in which the ponies had a central place. Technology, then, was a key theme both within the film and for the young people themselves. Of course as a student of Cultural Studies, technology is also a key theme (particularly having recently completed a cultural theory exam on Heidegger).
As part of the filming process the young people decided that they wanted to find out what the past was like and what place the ponies had in the history of the island. They visited the local museum and interviewed residents from the area, both examples of how knowledge and cultural memory can be transmitted across generations. At the museum they saw tools for farming and fishing, the two major industries of the past. Through this visit and the interviews they conducted, it became clear that the ponies were not ridden for leisure but used for work.
This contradicted a lot of the ideas the group had taken for granted. Their experience of the ponies was of riding and looking after them on evenings and weekends when they were not at school. However, the older local people never rode them for fun. The ponies were used as tools for working the fields and collecting seaweed for fertiliser. They were just as much a tool as a car or a tractor, only ones that needed feeding and looking after well so that they would work hard. Looking to Heidegger, this was an “instrumental” use of the ponies. They were used as a technology, and when tractors came along that could do the job more efficiently, the ponies were replaced. The young people were really surprised by this. Their main perspective was one of play. Play is a huge part of their lives and they realised that this was not the case with their parents and grandparents who often had to miss school in order to help with the harvest or gather seaweed. In contrast, this group of young people spent most of their time when not at school playing, on the beach, with the ponies, playing music, or with Playstations, Wii’s, computer games and the Internet. Technology then was also as major a part of their play as it was of their lives in general.
Heidegger’s essay on technology could at first appear to reinforce the romanticised opposition between the natural and the artificial, as good and bad respectively. Heidegger writes lyrically about the small wooden bridge, joining “bank with bank”, in harmony with the landscape compared to the modern dam.The building of the dam treats the river as an expendable resource, a pure supplier of power at our command (1949: 287). This way of viewing the world: as resources to be exploited, is for Heidegger, the essence of modern technology. For bridge you could read pony, for dam, car. However, Heidegger also points to a more subtle reading of technology. By tracing back to the Ancient Greek term techne, he explores the origins of the word and concepts behind technology. Techne, closely related to the word poesis, is as much connected to art and poetry as it is to what we know as technology. Through this connection Heidegger demonstrates that both a “danger” and “saving power”, good and bad are contained in technics. As Bernard Stiegler (1998) suggests, technology is Pharmakon, both poison and cure.
Interestingly some of the older people the group interviewed also talked about the poetic or magical qualities that the ponies were believed to have had: that sparks from the ponies’ hooves hitting the gravel of the roads at dusk were likened to “willo-the-wisp”; that if you looked into a pony’s ears at night you would see what they saw. There was a strong belief in the ponies’ intuition and sixth sense. These poetic stories of the ponies have undergone a process of translation over time, from Gaelic, the indigenous Celtic language to English. One older woman interviewed by the children in English, spoke Gaelic to show how she communicated with her pony. This poetic, more magical view of the world seemed to be bound up with the older language. There could be traces through this folklore of a more “enchanted” animist past. But she was also speaking from her childhood memory, and Gaelic was the language of her childhood. Through just a generation, Gaelic has almost been lost. Interestingly, this new generation, the young filmmakers, are learning Gaelic and some of them can speak it quite well. I’m not sure whether the group of young people believed the stories. This would have been an interesting question to have asked them. Certainly, they had faith in the intelligence of the animals, and of course were championing them in their film.
It is easy to have a romantic view of the past, and when interviewed at the end of the project, several of the young filmmakers said they realised the reality of the past was very different to what they had thought. After having thought the past was somewhere they wanted to return to, they realised it wasn’t that simple. The problematic romanticisation of the past, both obvious in the young people’s attitudes and present in the Heidegger essay points to a real loss. The question is how to acknowledge this loss and mourn it as such without retreating into a conservative position of wanting to conserve or return to it wholesale.
The rate of change in the islands of the Outer Hebrides over the last fifty years has been enormous. In living memory, people have gone from subsistence farming to a dependent grant culture. The industrialisation of the farming industry meant it was no longer viable to farm on the islands. Fishing still exists but poverty is rife. Not surprisingly, younger generations have tended to leave. Population retention has been a substantial problem in the area since the 1960’s. This steady decline can also be traced back to the introduction of television to the islands. The Outer Hebrides are a long way from the centre of power and media. Portrayals of mainland urban and predominantly southern English life dominated media coverage, helping encourage people to seek employment and a “better” life elsewhere. BBC Alba, the Scottish Gaelic digital TV channel only started broadcasting in September 2008. Ponies Left in the Past was part of a wider project aimed at engaging young people with their communities. The hope was that this would help to give young people ways to reflect on and speak about their local area as well as showing that other modes of employment were possible in the Highlands; thus improving the population retention rate.
Even though they had collected differing pieces of evidence that contradicted their initial proposal, in general the group were reluctant to concede their views. They wanted to make a film that simplified the situation in an argument that was easy to understand. There appeared to be group pressure to say the same as the others. This may have been partly to do with our relationship to them as three adults from outside their community coming in to “mentor” the project. The desire to close down contradictions and present a “simple” perspective can be understood in terms of a response to anxiety. Anxiety is often connected with uncertainty and the unknown. Most of these young people were just about to hit adolescence, the point at which adulthood has to be faced and come to terms with. Without having the language, these young people also seemed to be mirroring and amplifying the emotional content behind the information and misinformation that was being transmitted to them by the surrounding adult world. They were surrounded by contradictions and complications they had to make sense of.
The recent fuel crisis hit the highlands of Scotland very badly. Many people were turning to peat as a solution, a tradition that had not been practiced for years. The environmental crisis was also felt quite acutely in this area while new “greener” technologies were being looked to. Desertion, population decline and poverty had decimated the villages, much of it due to modern industrialisation. Development seemed to have caused many of the problems but was also desperately needed. There is a keen sense of the importance of keeping Gaelic and folk traditions such as music and dancing alive. Most of the young people play traditional musical instruments such as pipes and accordions. Subsequently they face all the contradictions involved in questions of tradition, realities of technological living and uncertainties about the future.
To define a binary opposition and stick to it is often perceived as a position of safety and security.
Jacques Derrida talks of the desire for certainty through the totalising narratives of structuralism, and that “on the basis of this certitude anxiety can be mastered”. However as much as this certainty is desired, it is also impossible. For Derrida, the disavowed anxiety points to something different: “for anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were at stake in the game from the outset” (1967: 352). Although play is a position of relative openness, there can also be rules to negotiate. These can be both implicit and explicit. Adolescence is the point at which childhood and adult “games” can collide and cause confusion.
The nature/culture binary, which the young people were so keen to uphold, even in the face of conflicting evidence, has a long tradition in Western thought. Derrida critiqued it through the anthropological writing of Levi-Strauss. Whilst investigating mythmaking in different “primitive” cultures, Levi-Strauss is faced at one point with a situation in which the opposition cannot be upheld. Rather than rejecting the concepts completely, Levi-Strauss simultaneously undermines their truth value whilst conserving them as methodological tools: “there is a readiness to abandon them, if necessary, should other instruments appear more useful” (Derrida, 1967: 359). Perhaps then in order to keep an open position, it is necessary to use concepts as tools and instruments rather than truths. This method has been described as bricolage: the use of “whatever is at hand”, tools or raw materials, for something other than their intended purpose. Levi-Strauss describes the mythopoetic nature of bricolage, applying it to the construction of myth and creative activity, both of which create improvised structures by appropriating materials that are close-at-hand (1966: 16-33). Filmmaking then can also be a form of bricolage. Extending these ideas to Ponies Left in the Past, there was perhaps an opportunity to use the themes of nature and technology that the young people had brought to light for something other than reinforcing the rigidity of this traditional opposition.
In writing this, I also struggle to allow the contradictions and difficulties to coexist while transmitting my thoughts and information in a coherent fashion. I play with formal and informal language. Taking on this method of bricolage, I introduce theoretical discourses as tools to explore and expand on my experiences of the project.
Moving from theoretical tools to the filmmaking media itself, we return to technology. As one of the young filmmakers said, we could not have made the film without technology. The “filmmaking” involved in this project was in fact digital video-making. In particular, the digital technology allowed the project to go ahead in the way that it did, bringing the editing equipment to the group and allowing them to get hands-on experience of the process of constructing a “film”. In fact, this availability of the digital image-making process directly undermines another opposition: that of producer and consumer.
Even though the word film is still used, most cinema now is digitally shot and edited. To be more precise, this technology is analogo-digital because it simulates the analogue image. Bernard Stiegler in The Discrete Image (2002: 147-160), writes that this simulation itself engenders anxiety and doubt. The obvious manipulability of the digital image questions our notions of truth and raises the possibility that whatever it was that was photographed or filmed, was perhaps not there in quite the same way as we saw it. He argues that this actually already existed in the analogue image but has been thrown more directly into question by the emergence of the digital. For Stiegler, Media as technics are prostheses, artificial organs that humans use to exteriorise memory and transmit knowledge in a non biological way. Stiegler therefore goes as far as discussing these digital developments in terms of an epistemological crisis. There is an interesting parallel here between the anxiety and doubt that the young people were already facing in the content and context of the film (including fuel and environmental crises) and the “crisis” engendered by the immateriality of the media itself.
As Post Production Mentor, I arrived at the point at which it was necessary to stop, watch the raw footage and reflect before moving on to construct the final object. This moment of reflection and evaluation could perhaps allow the young filmmakers to accept the contradictions and permit them to appear in the film. During the post production workshop that my sister and I facilitated, we strategically interviewed them in pairs as a way of breaking up the group conservatism. This allowed them to recognise and talk about how they enjoyed playing with technology, how they might be worried about the future and other issues that did not necessarily coincide with their initial totalising narrative. The position of facilitator is one that necessitates careful thought, especially as we, the facilitators were adults from mainland England, hoping to provide a platform for young Scottish Highlanders to have some kind of voice. My sister and I were working on the trust of the group and as editing is a long and time consuming process, we had to take the footage away and edit the majority ourselves. This of course was not ideal. However, we were able to give the young people some experience of how it would be done and take ideas about themes and structure away with us. Needless to say, some of the group became totally absorbed in using the computer to put together fragments of footage.
By creating a film through a process of bricolage we had created a vehicle for the transmission of memory. Both filmmaking and myth-making share this characteristic. With Ponies Left in the Past, the time-based nature of the medium allowed the narrative to move from a binary opposition through increasing doubt to a more complex and uncertain ending. Accepting complexity can mean confronting anxiety and perhaps accepting that we ourselves are implicated in the situation.
When the final workshop ended, my sister and I, childhood playmates, watched the group as they played on the computer in the corner of the community hall.
To see a clip of Ponies Left in the Past, visit the Nyx website: www.nyxnoctournal.com
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and other essays, New York/ London: Harper & Row 1977
Derrida, Jacques. Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, in Writing and Difference, London/New York: Routledge Classics 1978
Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1966
Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press 1998
Stiegler, Bernard. The Discrete Image, in Echographies of television: filmed interviews / Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler; Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Blackwell 2002