Not Enough Culture
- Garry Sherbert (Editor), Annie Gérin (Editor), and Sheila Petty (Editor)
Canadian Cultural Peosis: Essays on Canadian Culture. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Berkeley Kaite
History is memory in drag. This paraphrase captures the central tropes, whether explicitly stated or not, in many of the very good essays contained in the book, including parody, irony and their corollary, movement, in multi-faceted Canadian culture. Indeed, the conception of Canadian culture as a living hybrid is reflected in the frequent occurrence of Judith Butler, Linda Hutcheon, Homi Bhabha and Benedict Anderson in several of these essays. The introduction, “A Poetics of Canadian Culture,” by co-editor Garry Sherbert, is an excellent and trenchant discussion of “culture” and as such it tackles the vexed issue of its definition and the tricky question of both its specificity and its uncertainty. “Poesis” means “the making” of culture. In Canadian Cultural Poesis, it refers to the “tension between making and being made by culture.”
That tension, however, isn’t always brokered in the articles here. The best of the lot offer a series of good and probing questions about, for example, the desire for a separate identity constructed through humour and its ironic reversals in the essay by Beverly Rasporich. In another, Emily West looks at the “memory projects” found in the Historica Foundation’s TV “Heritage Minutes” and the CBC’s 17-part TV documentary, “Canada: A People’s History.” She reviews the debates surrounding these two productions and their failed attempts to avoid “rigid definition, exclusivity, and grand narratives.” She leaves the reader wanting more in the way of textual evidence, not because she doesn’t make her points, but because she does.
There are three essays on film in this volume. Zoe Druick provides a suggestive and dynamic definition of Canada as “a study in the application of communication technologies to questions of difference that present a problem for governance.” In her essay, Druick looks at the history of institutional attempts, by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau and the Film Acts of 1939 and 1950, the National Film Board and the Canadian Film Development Corporation, to create and promote Canadian national interest to Canadians. Druick concludes her discussion of the “spaces available for cultural production” with comments on Canadian identity as “bound up in processes of technological modernity that are at once local, national, and international.” Susan Lord asks “How does history get into a film?” and concludes there is a regional prairie Canadian gothic—“particular distortions of time and space, self and other, and vision and blindness that produce Gothic terror”—which is a response to political and social violence, the “losses” upon which the nation is founded. Jason Morgan argues there is “perversion chic” in English national cinema and that Canadian cinema is ‘naturally’ queer. His essay (from which ‘history is memory in drag’ is taken) is titled, “Queerly Canadian,” and his justification for deploying “queer,” with its (admittedly unstable) place within discourses of sexual politics, is that Canada is a nation that perpetually struggles “to contain its own internal differences.” So “queer” here denotes “both inclusiveness and transgression,” and “denies the need for binary thinking.” Why not call this deconstruction instead of “queer”?
Other essays deal with media representations, following Stuart Hall’s reminder (quoted in Sherbert’s introduction) that “questions of power and the political have to be and always are lodged within representations.” Yasmin Jiwani looks at the way “culture,” particularly ethnicity, is invoked in the media coverage of murder cases unwittingly to suggest violence has a cultural rather than social basis. Annie Gérin discusses the ways in which public art in Montréal is tied to the “ownership of space and linguistic identity” and collective memory, and “can repress or efface other interpretations of the past.” The use of photography to document First Peoples “place” in Canada is addressed by Carol Payne. Payne also demonstrates how the same photographs are recontextualized, retranslated or reinscribed by contemporary Native artists. Cynthia Sugars essay on the “I am Canadian” Molson beer ad is a superb analysis of an instance of a Canadian “compromised post-colonialism.” Sugars provides expert textual and theoretical excavation of the ad to conclude that to be Canadian is to be ambivalent about ourselves.
Too many essays here (around ten) address social institutions rather than culture (stasis rather than movement) and have little about them that is specifically Canadian. Texts or events described, while situated in Canada, often could apply to any other country. There is a desire to capture some Canadian-ness that may not be there. Would it have been too much to ask for scholarly work on Pierre Trudeau, hockey, Québécois cuisine, Newfoundland humour, the Eaton’s catalogue?
- "Ouestward" Bound by I. MacLaren
Books reviewed: In Search of the Western Sea / À la Recherche de la Mer de l'Ouest: Selected Journals of La Vérendrye / Mémoires choisis de La Vérendrye by Denis Combet and Starting Out in the Afternoon: A Mid-Life Journey into Wild Land by Jill Frayne
- Emily Montague by Janice Fiamengo
Books reviewed: The History of Emily Montague by Laura Moss
- Through German Eyes by Jenny Bingold
- Words and Value by Nicole Mirante
Books reviewed: Figures de pensée, figures de discours by Danielle Forget and Que vaut la littérature? by Denis Saint-Jacques
- A Truly Public Discourse by Margo Gouley
Books reviewed: An English Canadian Poetics: Vol. 1: The Confederation Period by Robert Hogg
MLA: Kaite, Berkeley. Not Enough Culture. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #195 (Winter 2007), Context(e)s. (pg. 175 - 177)
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