- David R. Williams (Author)
Imagined Nations: Reflections on Media in Canadian Fiction. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Kathryn Grafton
Engaging Benedict Anderson’s theory of the nation as a “mediated construct,” David Williams examines imagined communities in a Canadian context. Unlike Anderson, Williams does not privilege print; instead, emphasizing “language’s power to mediate the nation,” he historicizes the “variable relations” of different modes of communication and forms of community, and presents a finely wrought, balanced view of both the positive and detrimental effects of each mode. To study the interplay between media and nations, Williams conducts close readings of contemporary Canadian novels. This site of inquiry may seem paradoxical; however, Williams argues that the novel serves as an apt “diagnostic tool” because it is formally self-conscious, embodies “social contestation,” and concerns itself increasingly with other media forms. An ambitious book, Imagined Nations asks broad and pressing questions in a manner that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Williams’s detailed analysis of Canadian fiction casts interesting light upon these questions, while simultaneously leaving shadows yet to be explored.
In establishing his theoretical framework, Williams demonstrates how modes of communication have affected forms of community since antiquity. Knitting together seamlessly theories from Hobsbawn, Gellner, Bahktin, Bhabha, Innis, and Ronald Deibert, Williams begins with concepts of nationhood, next addresses the novel and nation, and then, more broadly, discusses media and nation. Anderson’s theory serves as Williams’s navigational guide, but ultimately, he privileges Innis’s work.
Focusing first on print culture, Williams shows how the narrator from No Great Mischief negotiates between his clan community’s orality and his national community’s print mindset. He then analyzes how print favours regionalism (as Innis suggests) while radio encourages confederation in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Closing with Prochain Épisode, Williams argues compellingly that the novel rejects print through its ironic depiction of a narrator who is a “willing slave” to both a literary genre and a fixed view of history and politics.
Less successful is Williams’s examination of film. In discussing The Butterfly Plague and The Englishman’s Boy, Williams suggests in overly-simplistic terms that both novels depict the interplay between film and community: this raises the (unanswered) question as to the limitations of examining print narratives to theorize film’s effect on the imagining of nations. Ending with a comparative analysis of The English Patient and its film adaptation, Williams argues that the novel challenges notions of empire more effectively than the film, largely because the camera is a tool of “sovereign consciousness” that drives “to contain all it surveys.” Yet is an adaptation the best site to examine how film affects community?
Finally, Williams considers how the digital era’s “single language of binary bits” erases boundaries that construct “the autonomous self, territorial space, and sovereign nations.” With a hint of technological determinism, he focuses on how individuals “acculturated to hypermedia environments” conceptualize the self as multiple and the nation as permeable. In an insightful return to The English Patient, Williams stresses the novel’s drive towards a postnational future in its depiction of Almasy’s fragmented self, alteration of the text of Herodotus into a metaphoric “hypertext,” and attack on nationalism. Williams then contrasts this possible future to the dystopic, postnational world in Neuromancer. Ultimately, he urges readers to recognize how media shape our imagined Canadas and to choose the vision of The English Patient over that of Neuromancer.
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MLA: Grafton, Kathryn. Imagined Canadas. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 178 - 179)
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