- Barbara Godard (Author) and Smaro Kamboureli (Editor)
Canadian Literature at the Crossroads of Language and Culture. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lorraine Weir
One of the pre-eminent theorists of her generation in Canada, Barbara Godard brought a learned and complex understanding of semiotics and deconstruction to the analysis of the Canadian literary institution and, in particular, to the study of the circumstances of production and reception of the work of those for whom “exclusionary silencing” re/produced conditions of sociocultural marginalization. Canadian Literature at the Crossroads of Language and Culture, selected essays first published between 1987 and 2005, elegantly displays the breadth of Godard’s theoretical work, including essays on the problematic of representation in Aboriginal women’s writing, on the commodification of Canadian literature and the reproduction of settler deterritorializing strategies in relation to the work of M. NourbeSe Philip, and on the struggle to do theory in relation to Canadian cultural expressions and institutional culture over the past two decades, among other topics. Throughout the collection, Godard’s knowledge of theory informs her often trenchant analyses of multicultural Canada and its literatures, committed to the position that it “is imperative for the critic to make visible the spoil and toil attending any civilizing gesture” in order “to position Canadian literature not just in space, but in time.”
Topologies, then, and allegoresis; poetics and différance, border crossings and resistances, governmentality and “minority literatures” and, as this collection brilliantly shows, a principled commitment to theorizing the institutional structures governing the funding and reception of ‘literature’ in Canada. Resisting the swerve toward the transnational, she is also emphatic in her resistance of Frye’s “Where is here,” theorizing the “topocentric imperative” of settler hegemony as similarly deflective of historical imbrication. Neither liminal nor nostalgic for Godard, border crossings are heuristic moments, opportunities to deconstruct diversity policy as containment for difference, and to theorize those extravagant excesses of gender/race/class which settler Canada delegitimizes and invisibilizes via policies of “inclusivity”. Thus in her brilliant essay, “Deterritorializing Strategies: M. NourbeSe Philip as Caucasianist Ethnographer,” Godard writes that multiculturalism is “a policy of liberal cultural pluralism, . . . [which] works to reproduce binary oppositions of white/colour and fails to expose the power relationships of systematic racism that work to erase difference.” Further, in a passage which in many ways epitomizes her analysis of the settler industry of Can Lit, Godard writes that NourbeSe Philip’s critique “exposes a complex contradiction of Canadian culture where language creates one set of exclusionary practices of silencing and race another overlapping set of erasures, a contradiction signified in the positions of ‘silenced’ other and invisible ‘visible minority.’”
As a feminist theorist, Godard was always acutely conscious of the complexities of her own location with respect to the “dominant discourse” and, during the 1980s and 90s, of the contested position of theory, “totalized and scapegoated” in relation to Canadian literature. Her magisterial essay, “Canadian? Literary? Theory?” brilliantly expresses the theory debates of that period. While Godard was characteristically hesitant to criticize individuals, it is not difficult to see her withering glance directed at critics whose reliance on postmodern dicta masquerades as theory. Reading between the lines of editor Smaro Kamboureli’s interview with Godard, it is also not difficult to see Godard’s own experience of a struggle which she describes in “Canadian? Literary? Theory?” in terms of the rejection for publication of another scholar’s essay “because of its focus on theory. Constructed thus as the doxa of reading theory in Canada is a strong misreading that re-writes and re-positions texts by practitioners of theories through a refusal of the premises of poetics over criticism, either by denouncing them as non-sense or by refusing to engage them at all—exclusionary silencing.” As Godard comments in her interview with Kamboureli, “Many younger scholars are unaware of the history of the field,” and unaware of the struggles which Godard describes in this essay.
Those struggles to do the work of theory in the context of Canadian literatures characterize much of Godard’s career as do the struggles of a theorist whose concern with problematics associated with women’s writing, “minor literatures,” Indigenous writers and their works, the history of the literary institution in Canada, and translation as theorized practice tended to fragment her scholarly reputation at a time when ‘specialization’ continued to mean criticism, not theory, and ‘major figures’ if not specific regions of settler mapping. The rigour of Godard’s work and the intimacy of her understanding of poststructuralist theory in many forms elude easy paraphrase, and her many theoretical essays tend often each to do the work which some might reserve for a book. Not one for needless elaboration or the brief essay devoted to a single canonic author, Godard took on “Writing Between Cultures’ (1997) and “Relational Logics: Of Linguistic and Other Transactions in the Americas” (2005)—brilliant, ambitious, theoretically virtuoso essays encyclopedic in scope and uncompromising in theoretical argumentation.
In an elegantly Derridean passage which now seems spectral, Barbara concluded “Canadian? Literary? Theory?” by thinking about the “properly ‘Canadian.’” Who might speak, read, claim le propre? Who might come like a revenant and still the echoes of all the words? “There is no inside/outside re-reading, re-writing. Beyond ‘intention,’ these (g)hos[t]ly essays live on—in the (im)possibility of theory.” That theory might be/is possible, a home/at home in this vexed proper, is in no small measure thanks to the work of Barbara Godard.
- A Shout Out to Marsh by E. Hamilton
Books reviewed: Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding by Terence W. Gordon and Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger by Philip Marchand
- On Returns by Charles Barbour
Books reviewed: Cryptomimesis: The Gothic and Jacques Derrida's Ghost Writing by Jodey Castricano and Anarcho-Modernism: Toward a New Critical Theory by Ian Angus
- Emancipatory Theory? by Rachael Gardner
Books reviewed: The Creolization of Theory by Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih
- Feminist Debates by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: Lesbian Utopics by Annamarie jagose and Politics and Scholarship: Feminist Academic Journals and the Production of Knowledge by Patrice McDermott
- Reading Rereading by Graham Nicol Forst
Books reviewed: Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works by David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky
MLA: Weir, Lorraine. Living On. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 143 - 144)
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