Double Vision Reading
- Will Straw (Editor), Caroline Andrew (Editor), Monica Gattinger (Editor), and M. Sharon Jeannotte (Editor)
Accounting for Culture: Thinking through Cultural Citizenship. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Chelva Kanaganayakam (Editor)
Moveable Margins: The Shifting Spaces of Canadian Literature. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sophie McCall
Two recent collections of essays on Canadian culture and literature seem symptomatic of an increasing incompatibility in critical approaches between the social sciences and the humanities despite an ostensible shift in the academy towards interdisciplinarity. Reading these two texts in tandem is likely to cause a bad case of double vision—a time-honoured, eminently Canadian affliction. But if these texts demonstrate incommensurability in discipline, methodology and function, they also explore some common ground. Both are trying to formulate a coherent, if flexible, picture of cultural continuity and change in Canada in an era of accelerated migration, commodified cultural exchange and the erosion of nationally-based cultural policies. Both call for a re-examination of the role culture plays in citizenship and ask what “Canada” signifies as a container for an ever-increasing cultural, linguistic, sexual, and religious plurality.
Many of the contributors to Andrew et. al.’s collection express an urgent need to reinvigorate the function of Canadian cultural policy and to link it to a participatory notion of cultural citizenship. John A. Foote’s statement of intent is widely applicable: “We are looking for a conceptual approach that helps us move away from the marginalization of culture or cultural policy towards a greater recognition of its fundamental role in encouraging active cultural and civic participation and in bridging inter-cultural differences.” Virtually all the writers insist that vague evocations of cultural complexity (ubiquitous in Canadian literary studies) cannot rectify the marginalization of culture in governmental policy and public debate. Statistics, graphs and colour-coded pies, based on economic arguments, remain the most effective tools in eliciting government support. Thus, some of the contributors define culture using conventional taxonomies that risk reifying ‘culture’ as a knowable set of characteristics (Stanley, Foote, Pacquet). Colin Mercer offers a more nuanced approach. Although “we need more numbers, more facts, more indicators, more benchmarks in both quantitative and qualitative terms,” he urges critics to ask not what culture is but rather “how it connects and relates to how we go about our lives.”
In Kanaganayakam’s collection, as the title suggests, there is a greater degree of comfort with “moveable” and “shifting” notions of culture. Indeed, the contributors to this volume seem sceptical of attempts to define culture; rather, as Kanaganayakam points out, each essay is imbued “with a deep awareness of the fluidity of margins.” The strength of the collection is the extraordinary range of Canadian writing that “refuses stable location” by authors “whose origins lie outside Canada.” This is Canadian writing that is constantly “moving away and gesturing towards origins.” Cynthia Sugars’s powerful essay explores the haunting obsession with origins in Canadian settler literary discourses that attempt to manufacture an “ab-originality that is not aboriginal.” There is a certain disdain for positivistic, government-focused notions of culture, and a faith in literature to escape rigid approaches to cultural difference. In Donna Bennett’s words, “literature provides us with narratives created outside the boundaries of bureaucracy in order to articulate complexity and raise exceptions.” This insight seems apt in light of the potentially reductive imperative to count and itemize cultural difference in Andrew et. al. However, the notion of literature occupying a privileged space outside bureaucracy is also symptomatic of the disciplinary norms in Canadian literary studies whereby critics opportunistically tune out the material constraints within which Canadian culture is produced, packaged and sold today.
The problem of nation, in this era of globalization and increasingly complex patterns of migration, remains ever-present in both texts. Just as the apparent turn to interdisciplinarity simultaneously has justified a retrenchment of academic specialization, globalization ironically has reified national borders. For Diana Brydon and Jessica Schagerl, globalization has not resulted in “nation-states hav[ing] lost their power to control global flows.” George Elliot Clarke insists on the need to teach minority literatures as a way to create alternative national narratives, and Daniel Heath Justice makes an impassioned call for indigenous sovereignty in both literary studies and in Canadian political life. Kanaganayakam’s response to the persistence of the nation in these discussions is that Canadian literature “is haunted by the idea of a nation. The presence of the nation… is both problematic and paradoxical.” His essay on Canadian writers whose work is not set in Canada (e.g., Mistry, Vassanji, Ondaatje) offers a compelling illustration of precisely this paradox. In Andrew et. al., the paradoxical need for, and inadequacy of, a nationally-based cultural policy are explored in some detail. Even as the export of Canadian culture is increasing at an unprecedented rate, Canadian cultural policy remains mired in the outdated assumption that Canada has (or should have) a singular national culture. Because of the inadequacy of this model, the legitimacy of cultural policy itself is in question—at this moment when, the contributors suggest, Canadians most need it.
One way to reinvent Canadian cultural policy is to reveal its potential links to a participatory conception of cultural citizenship. As Greg Baeker (and others) argue, cultural policy, fractured at the national level, must now operate on three equally fractured and increasingly diverse levels: civil society, the nation-state and the global environment. The turn to cultural citizenship is necessary because “traditional public interest arguments for cultural policy, rooted in notions of a homogenous nation state… are undermined in an era marked by the transnational movement of people, capital, images, etc.” Statistically speaking, according to Allan Gregg, the erosion of cultural policy in Canada has coincided with dwindling numbers of voters. He asks: “could the decline in faith in our political process and the lack of support for culture be related? Can culture be used to rekindle faith in politics?” Gregg’s homogenized notions of culture, politics and citizenship can be corrected by reading Kanaganayakam’s collection, particularly Brydon and Schagerl’s careful attention to “how recent and how fragile citizenship” is; and how “it has always been sexualized and racialized.”
Despite their respective focus on the “fracturing” of Canadian cultural policy and the “fluidity of margins” in Canadian literature, the contributors to both volumes simultaneously express a yearning for a larger, more cohesive narrative of Canada. For Andrew et. al., Canada needs to re-envision the role of national cultural policy. Kanaganayakam begins his introduction by resurrecting the spectres of Atwood and Frye, as if these figures could offer us, in the chaos of current multiplicities, a common starting point of discussion. These are just a few of the critical ruptures that necessitate double vision when reading commentary on shifting Canadian cultural landscapes.
- Home Free? by Joanne Saul
Books reviewed: Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo and Writing Home: A PEN Canada Anthology by Constance Rooke
- An Unlikely Hero by Clint Evans
Books reviewed: The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture by Albert Braz
- Building Canada by David Monteyne
Books reviewed: William Thomas Architect 1799-1860 by Glenn McArthur and Annie Szamosi, The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-1963 by Rhodri Windsor Liscombe, and Homeplace: The Making of the Canadian Dweeling over Three Centuries by Peter Ennals and Deryck W. Holdsworth
- Recovering Voices by Rocío G. Davis
Books reviewed: Where Are the Voices Coming From?: Canadian Culture and the Legacies of History by Coral Ann Howell
- Reclaiming the Lost by J. A. Weingarten
Books reviewed: Canadian Women in Print, 1750-1918 by Carole Gerson
MLA: McCall, Sophie. Double Vision Reading. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 95 - 97)
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