Personal “bricolage”

(mercredi 16 décembre 2009)

— Hey Félix, what’s the matter with this curious disease that spreads periodically in France ? Can you explain what is really meant by “identité nationale” ?

— Oh no ! I’m sorry, Suzy. I was born in Paris and I never ever lived elsewhere, but I still can’t understand this strange notion you mention.

I only know that it might be more fatal than the H1N1 virus. It must be quite destructive for the mental health of any kinds of people, whether regular folks or the more educated. It is said that the evil could even extend beyond the national frontier.

Apparently “identité nationale” seems to be a common social pathology known everywhere in the world as “nationalism”. But it happens that the local people sincerely believe that they are the only one to be affected by this strange phenomenon.

This infection shows up through worrying signs of confusion. Everything is mixed in the same ideological mush – identities, cultures, origins and sociability – whereas it’s clear that in acts of everyday life, each of these terms has a different meaning. Each term refers to specific social roles.

— “La question fait débat.” At least, citizens have the opportunity to refute and to fight with rational arguments the xenophobic aims implied in the discussion.

— “C’est bien là le problème.” In reaction, some people rightly criticize the worst ideas. But many of them counter opponants’ positions, claiming to represent the “true France”. They’re infected too.

— You’re immunized ; aren’t you ?

— When I was younger, I used to discredit strongly all kinds of patriotic games. This constituted a major face of my identity, but thereby I was taking part in the same type of mixture that I criticized, merely discarding a same group constituted by the nation-state, my national origins and “French culture”. I simply refused to accept my roots.
This position is the best way to adsorb self-loathing and cynical attitudes that lead to the other side of the same destructive concept that I hate so much in nationalism. One is outward looking, the other is inwardly-oriented. Both result, in final analysis, in a similar kind of bondage.

— Have you changed your opinion ?

— Instead, I modified my views. I take the some distance, which allows me to better observe the contrasts and I try to put myself into unexpected perspectives. To clarify what I mean, I’d like to return to another personal old passion : Frank Zappa.

— What’s the relationship between “identité nationale” and Zappa ?

— Absolutely no link, but my personal interpretation of French culture is completely and deliciously mixed with Frank’s universe. And, by the way, as it would be impolite to throw out it all in one go, I’ll try now to somewhat unravel all of this.

When I was a teenager, music, comics and horror movies took had an important role in the raw materials of what made up my identity. So, I fashioned myself with Frank’s music probably like Frank did for himself with Doo Wop and R’n’B at the same period of his life.

I deeply loved his music, thus this music — I mean Blues, Boogie, R’n’B, Soul, Rock and Roll, Funk, Jazz — is now an integral part of me. Many other rock musicians allowed me to make this journey but Frank was my favorite one.

— He was a kind of grass roots introduction to American popular culture.

— Yes indeed, this education was already a great present and he gave even more : his own original musical creations which are based on extraordinarily diverse influences. To my knowledge, there is nothing yet comparable : both really American and completely “elsewhere”, in some hypothetical, immaterial and fragmented territories. This unusual combination created in me a rare emotional shock when I listened my first record of Frank Zappa (Chunga’s Revenge) and this continued for most of the others.

— Therefore, thanks to musicians like Frank, you’re a little bit American, aren’t you ?

— No. I say that the 50’s popular American music is a part of me, but I live in Europe so, American culture is not mine nor French culture, if French culture means to be addicted to creepy phantasies such as “Rayonnement culturel”, “Influence mondiale” or “Mission universaliste”. But it might be possible that “French culture” is something else. Something more or less informal, more or less sensually connected to the geographical area where I was born. It is precisely from this positive assumption that I’ll continue our conversation.

— Keep on trucking !

— As many others, I built, and I still build, a sort of small personal “bricolage” : “something between”, progressive, interpretative, reversible, critical, contradictory, ambivalent and fragile. That’s my real culture and there’s nothing original in it.

In that composition, many things arose from my background ; so, let’s call it “French culture” (Paris, wine, cheese, literature, visual arts, language, etc.). Moreover, it’s a fact that
“French culture” has been traditionally influenced by many “foreign cultures”. And all nations are influenced by others, although the largest and most demanding have a tendency to abuse their position (there is nothing new under the sun).

In addition, of the many varied influences on “ French culture” most of them come from the – already – “worldwide thing” which is not only American but also European, Sub-Saharan and North African, Asiatic, etc.

I have every reason to believe that in this experience, I’m not an exception !

“National cultures” as our grand-parents knew them no longer exist anywhere. The only places where this myth is a reality are in folklore and the tourism industry ; they actually play a trivial part in what people really needs to live together.

— Do you mean that you choose to construct your culture and you fahsion your own identity ?

— The national origin is a fact : “on doit faire avec”. I did not choose it and I am forced to admit that it is an important part of what I am. It is stupid to believe that it could be possible to be excluded from this permanent reference.

My native culture could be strongly and more or less contradictorily complemented with another one ; for example, if I decide to emigrate or if my parents are immigrants, but it’s unfeasible to erase it, as much by the will as by the constraint. And that is why the famous “question de l’identité nationale”, as they expound it, is an absurdity. It’s an abstract concept that nobody can resolve in real life. There is no answer to this question regardless of the status of the person concerned : native, immigrant or “second generation”.

The only context where this concept applies is in administrative proceedings ; and it is the reference that should define the identity of everybody ? What kind of citizenship do they want ? The feeling expressed in football stadiums ?

Not now, and never : my French heritage is my own interpretation of French culture and it is an essential part of my identity but my identity has nothing to do with their “identité nationale”.

— It would seem that you too are infected by the debate.

— It’s possible, but in conclusion let’s return to my other key personal reference : Frank Zappa.

As you know, he had a huge personal collection of old LP’s, specially some rare copies of Doo Wop material. The influence of this style of music was a permanent characteristic of his music during all his career.

— An important part of the ironic and parody aspect of his work.

— Of course but I don’t agree with interpretations that consider the Doo Wop songs as strictly parody, without musical intentions.

Frank was able to write and play all styles of music. Most of the time, what he played was in line to what he was. Sometimes, unfortunately, this was not the case. Despite the savage denigration (“greasy love songs and cretin simplicity”), he was always sincere with Doo Wop, because here, he was at home with the style.

The relationship that Frank had with Doo Wop seems to me quite similar to the link I’ve tried to explain with my national background in French culture :

 deep roots and distance

 constant references, but they’re not exclusive

 tenderness and irony ; the wholesome – both sarcastic and respectful – attitudes about things, persons and social situations.

Actually, Frank helps me develop a positive attitude towards my national background. Hence, that’s yet another reason that he is essential, too.


Song : I’m Not Satisfied (Frank Zappa) - 1968