The Present As Watershed
- Gerald Friesen (Author)
Citizens and Nation: An Essay on History, Communication, and Canada. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Myrna Kostash (Author)
The Next Canada: In Search of Our Future Nation. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lothar Honnighausen
Canadian books on Canada’s present and future, in contrast to American books on America’s present and future, are not characterized by their boisterous or brazen affirmativeness. Rather, it is their wary and self-critical soul-searching that intrigues the outside observer. Gerald Friesen’s and Myrna Kostash’s books are no exception. Neither author relies on a grandiose theoretical framework. These books prefer to deal with contributions to the national culture from ordinary citizens (Friesen) and focus on social issues (Kostash). Both take the present as a watershed, Friesen to examine the legacy shaping it, and Kostash to find out what the future holds for young contemporaries.
Gerald Friesen’s Citizens and Nation consists of four parts: I. Oral-Traditional Societies, II. Textual-Settler Societies, III. Print-Capitalist National Societies, IV. Screen-Capitalist Societies. The compounds indicate the interrelatedness of four stages in economic and communication history. Each part is comprised of two chapters, the first a descriptive case study, the second an in-depth interpretation. Thus Part III contains the two chapters "Phyllis Knight and Canada’s First Century" and "Literate Communication and Political Resistance." The fact that the chapters are arranged in numerical order suggests a continuous economic and cultural development.
As the case studies represent major phases in communication history, their choice is all-important: "Elizabeth and Jim Goudie [. ..] represent millions of people who experienced this textual-settler version of communication and culture in various corners of the earth between the twelfth and twentieth centuries." Friesen pays attention to the typical as well as to the individual and his effective writing style provides a nuanced view of the period as well as a lively and sometimes moving picture of his witnesses: grandmother Andre who represents aboriginal society and oral culture; Elizabeth and Jim Goudie who embody textual-settler society; the Knights who illustrate working-class life in the print-capitalist society; Roseanne and Frank who bring to mind the screen-capitalist society of our time; and Simonne Monet-Chartrand whose autobiography provides insight into the life of Montreal’s francophone élite during the 1970s and 1980s.
Friesen, in the tradition of Innis and McLuhan, presents cultural history as history of communication. He takes his cue from one of Innis’s remarks in The Fur Trade in Canada (1930): "We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions." Broadening Innis’s observation to include contributions to Canadian history by settlers, by nineteeth-century workers and twentieth-century employees, he "outlines how the very acts of communication—the social contexts created by the voice, writing, print, and modern electronic forms—establish a framework for citizenship and nationality and thus for Canada." He suggests "that over the entire course of human history in northern North America common people have experienced four constructions of the dimensions of time and space" and "that we can correlate these four constructions to four communication systems." Friesen allows for considerable overlap and for the coexistence of several communication systems ("each supplements and complements, but does not erase its predecessor;" "the oral and the literal [are] not mutually exclusive").
Further, he frequently and usefully compares the various modes in which Canadians throughout history have experienced time and space. Comparisons like the following constitute one of the attractions of his book:
By juxtaposing them [Goudie and Knight], one can observe the scale of cultural change between the world of settlers, shaped, as we saw above, by nature and other people’s texts, and the world of national citizens, shaped by the first generations of mass media, by early versions of North American capitalism, and by the boundaries of the nation-state. [...] The very language of the Goudie and Knight memoirs reveals differences in their authors’ visions of time and space.
The workers’ struggle redefined time as meaning the span of work for which a wage was paid. It also restructured space, because it separated workplace from household, as the differences between the Goudie and the Knight families illustrate. Neither Alestine Andre’s grandmother nor Elizabeth Goudie ever encountered insistent, externally monitored, timed changes in their daily work. Whether participation in the Princess Diana cult should indeed be regarded as an impressive contribution of Canadians to their national culture or whether the formula "one must turn from economic history and genealogy to cultural history" has to be repeated quite so often, is questionable. But these are minor problems hardly worth mentioning in view of Friesen’s convincing approach, his insightful readings of the six well-chosen narratives, and the many revealing comparisons of, for instance, the different kinds of insecurity experienced by Elizabeth Goudie’s settler family, by Phyllis Knight’s 1930s working-class family and by Roseanne’s postmodern family. Professional and readable, Citizens and Nation is an impressive and useful book.
The same can be said for Myrna Kostash’s The Next Canada, an overview of the prospects of "the next Canada" that is based on a wide range of interviews and organized under five thematic headings: I. "The New World Order," II. Culture, III. Beyond Identity Politics, IV. Acts of Resistance, V. Homeplace. Kostash shares Friesen’s social commitment and is no friend of Reagan’s "New World Order" as implemented by Mulroney and Chrétien. She thus begins her opening chapter on the "New World Order" not with the state of the economy, but "with governments’ ’adjustment’ to market-driven ’realities,’ that is, with the fatal impact of deficit reduction and public dis-investment in the social services ("Canadians should squirm at the top ranking [by the UN] of our quality of life"). Kostash has her misgivings about the replacement of the "workplace culture" of the sixties and seventies by "self-employment" with "the self-employed working out of their own offices, paying for their own benefits, and paying for their own utilities." However, as she is interested in a balanced picture, she also interviews representatives of the Progressive Group for Independent Business and of the Reform Party who not only demand "tax relief" but also acknowledge "the government’s role in the provision of social services." From this the author seems to infer that it will be difficult to distinguish Right from Left in "the next Canada."
In her interviews, Kostash finds the next generation "team-oriented and very quality conscious" but also "driven to innovate, driven by immediacy requiring fast results, plugged trustingly into the Internet, in love with hard work because work and play are the same thing for them." But that does not keep her from sharing Jeremy Rifkin’s disillusioned view that "the digitized technology of the post-industrial era has in fact eliminated jobs" and "that hundreds of millions of workers in the Western industrialized nations will be left permanently unemployed." The interviews with e-zine editors, which open the chapter on "Culture," reveal just how problematic homing in cyberspace is and how unlikely it is to preserve a Canadian cultural identity. But one cannot help thinking that if Kostash had interviewed some of the impressive writers who have done so much to establish Canada’s reputation abroad, her picture of her country’s cultural sovereignty in the face of the overwhelming globalismofthe American media might have turned out to be more positive. The interviews, in "Beyond Identity Politics," on "Sexualities," particularly those bringing out differences between second-wave feminists and post-feminist Grrls, are more striking than those on "Ethnicities." In fact, after reading all the interviews on fluid sexualities and transgressions, one wonders whether "in the next Canada" any children will be born. For Kostash, as a member of the sixties generation, it is clearly reassuring that there are some interviewees who report "Acts of Resistance" against Pepsi products and the APEC summit at UBC or who engage in feats of Eco-Activism. But these protesters clearly are not as representative of the time as were those of the sixties and seventies, and there is something inauthentic about these "Acts of Resistance." ("You read about the Sorbonne occupations in ’68, in Columbia and Berkeley, but when you actually do it [ . . . ] you realize the possibilities.") Is it because many contemporaries have given up because they feel that there is too much to protest against to even begin?
Under the heading "The Shrinking Commons," Kostash courageously criticizes "privatization" as a euphemistically named and indiscriminately endorsed policy: "With every privatization [ . . . ] we have shed a little bit more of a citizenship in institutions that glued us together with shared responsibility and shared authority." One hesitates to subscribe to her optimistic assumption that in the next Canada "the retribalizing" in the computer interface will lead to "the persistent identification with the idea of Canada as a shared ’commons’ of social consciousness." But there is no doubt that Kostash’s book presents exciting new views of Canada.
- Privileged Access by Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein
Books reviewed: New Readings of Yiddish Montreal by Pierre Anctil, Norman Ravvin, and Sherry Simon
- Celebrating Barry Callaghan by Douglas Ivison
Books reviewed: Barry Callaghan: Essays on His Works by Priscila Uppal
- Video Memory by Will Straw
Books reviewed: Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age by Gary R. Edgerton and Peter C. Rollins and Magnetic North by Jenny Lion
- Northrop Frye: A Double Vision by Heather Murray
Books reviewed: Mythologizing Canada: Essays on the Canadian Literary Imagination by Northrop Frye and Branko Gorjup and Northrop Frye's Student Essays 1932-1938: Collected Works of Northrop Frye Vol.3 by Robert D. Denham and Northrop Frye
- 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
MLA: Honnighausen, Lothar. The Present As Watershed. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 174 - 176)
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