In the Speculative Mode

  • B. W. Powe
    Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Brett Josef Grubisic (Editor), Gisèle M. Baxter (Editor) and Tara Lee (Editor)
    Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase: Contemporary North American Dystopian Literature. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Krzysztof Majer

These two publications are bound up in investigating the relationship between the increasingly complex, globalized present and imagined, radically uncertain futurities. They probe the extent to which the latter—figured as part of various critical and literary agendas—contain the seeds of the former, or else constitute a radical break in cognitive, technological, social, and political terms.

In Apocalypse and Alchemy, B. W. Powe offers a critical double homage that continually strives to overcome or reinterpret its doubleness. Having studied under both Frye and McLuhan, whose uneasy coexistence within the critical field helped define the “Toronto School of Communication Theory,” Powe seems ideally suited to the task. And the task is a daunting one: to yoke together (alchemize?) the sprawling, scattered teachings of two thinkers whose contrary positions once seemed entrenched: the “typographic man” versus the “prophet of the digital age,” or “the seer” versus “the hearer.” Yet Powe’s intuition, grounded in comprehensive (re)readings, is to conceive of Frye and McLuhan as “each other’s horizons,” the initiators of “a visionary-apocalyptic tradition in Canadian letters.”

Employing a strategy that he recognizes as distinctly Canadian, Powe interprets their rivalry as a productive, necessary agon—an enactment of the Blakean dictum that “Without Contraries is no progression.” Powe works through the differences towards an array of rewarding convergences. Besides their determinedly literary points of reference (e.g., Finnegans Wake), Powe notices a shared “impulse towards revelation,” deeply rooted in Frye’s Methodist training and McLuhan’s Catholic devotion. According to Powe, the two are united in their belief that the cosmos—Nature or Super-Nature—is coded yet legible. The “apocalypse” is therefore to be taken in its epiphanic, revelatory sense, as an ushering in of a utopian, global era of new understanding: a philosophical position which sits uncomfortably alongside the diverse inheritance of the hermeneutics of suspicion.

Powe’s assertion that Frye and McLuhan are inescapable Canadian influences is nowhere more evident than in his own text: grappling with their legacy is rendered through a fittingly Biblical, pluralized metaphor of wrestling for intellectual independence with a “Janus-like” angel. Stuart Hall once remarked that a theory for which one must “wrestl[e] with the angels” is ultimately the only one worth maintaining; and yet, a reader may wonder if Powe is not somewhat overpowered. His masters’ apocalyptic, even “Pentecostal” tone certainly informs his critical evaluation. The lasting significance of their common achievement is continually re-stated, and yet the study rarely queries their influence on particular writers or critics. The excellent section on representative critiques of Frye’s political escapism (Jameson) and McLuhan’s humanization of the media (Eco, Baudrillard) sadly occupies only ten pages, while meriting an entire chapter.

The authors whose work has been collected in Blast, Corrupt, Dismantle, Erase operate, for the most part, within a very different idiom. Here, utopian futures are more readily critiqued than established, the raised concerns at once more local and pressing. The intensely political nature of this inquiry into dystopian narratives is already evident in its timeframe: the “notably volatile period” from January 1, 1994 (NAFTA’s coming into effect), to September 11, 2011 (the tenth
anniversary of 9/11). Concomitant with this choice is the geopolitical reach, i.e., the combined
territories of NAFTA’s members—the US, Canada, and Mexico. The essays range across a number of frequently hybridized literary genres, e.g., science fiction, young adult fiction, comic book / graphic novel, or urban fantasy.

Consequently, the volume allows for refreshing critical juxtapositions. Whether concerned with imagining alternatives to dysfunctional systems (e.g., Tobeck, Miller), analyzing relations between technology, economy, and the social order (Lapointe, DeGraw), reinscribing erased subjectivities into collective histories (Canivell, Rivera), or rewriting the boundaries of dystopia
(Tally, Staveley, Konstantinou), these twenty-five essays invariably offer stimulating criticism, productively positioned along a number of significant boundaries. Notably, several authors (especially Stubblefield and Percy) struggle with and ultimately reject Margaret Atwood’s contentious declaration that the qualities of utopia and dystopia are always commingled and should be theorized collectively as “ustopia.” Where Powe strives to present Frye’s and McLuhan’s attempts to “comfort and inspire” and “to let us soar,” Grubisic, Baxter, and Lee seem intent on disrupting our comfort and reminding us that no transformation is possible without our involvement.



This review “In the Speculative Mode” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 183-184.

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