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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

"We who are homeless"

  • David Campbell (Editor) and Michael J. Shapiro (Editor)
    Moral Spaces: Rethinking Ethics and World Politics. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Michael Walzer (Author)
    On Toleration. Yale University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • John Hutnyk (Editor) and Raminder Kaur (Editor)
    Travel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics. Zed (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Charles Barbour

By far the most intriguing of these three books is Travel Worlds, a collection of essays edited by Raminder Kaur and John Hutnyk. Travel Worlds explores the contingency of the borders that define certain identities (especially national borders and identities), and distinguishes between different kinds of border-crossings. In particular, the movements of peaceful and neutral western tourists are called into question, and shown to be complicit (like those of the anthropologist) with a variety of colonizing gestures. The travel of tourists is contrasted with the travel of refugees, terrorists and migrant workers (not to mention commodities, currencies, cultural artifacts).

In their contribution to Travel Worlds, "The Strut of the Peacocks" (which refers to both the guards who symbolically defend and the tourists who easily cross the Indo-Pak border), Virinder S. Kalra and Navtej K. Purewal suggest that, when it comes to border-crossing, we should make a distinction between "transgression" and "transition." This distinction is operative in most of the essays in this volume, as most examine whose border-crossings are transgres-sive (risking persecution and death), and whose merely transitional (playful, safe).

So Kaur and Hutnyk have compiled a book that sets out "to think otherwise about departures and itineraries," to dislodge any easy conflation of travel and tourism, and to refine, or redefine, just what is meant by "transgression."

This book is not a plea for people to "stay home"—even Sean McLoughlin and Virinder S. Kalra’s cleverly titled "Wish You Were(n’t) Here?" does not go that far. The editors of, and contributors to, Travel Worlds are clearly aware of the close relationship between the history of writing (including their own) and the history of travel. It would be difficult to think the history of writing without simultaneously thinking the history of travel, and of national "borders"—including all the violence and romance attributable to each.

Perhaps in order to address the relationship between these histories, the "borders" of Travel Worlds are rendered rather permeable, not restricting access to academic essays alone, allowing for the incursion of poetry (Joyoti Grech’s "Anthem" and "Bordercrossing") and "fictive-factual" narrative (Raminder Kaur’s "Parking the Snout in Goa"). However, while they leave open its possibility, it is not clear that the editors of Travel Worlds would appreciate playful interpretation. Specific politics and specific histories are examined in Travel Worlds, not the immaterial afflatus of philosophy, of metaphor or of (as the editors write) "a discursive critique of meaning." The editors of Travel Worlds wish to maintain and defend the relatively traditional (yet extremely, and precisely, volatile) border between politics and philosophy, materialism and idealism, (new) historicism and (quasi-)transcendentalism.

Not to say that the distinction between historicism and transcendentalism is without merit. In fact, it is perhaps the easiest way to distinguish between Travel Worlds and Moral Spaces. If the former is concerned with specific and situated politics, the latter is concerned with ostensibly more "fundamental" philosophical questions conditioning the possibility of any politics. For example, in his contribution to Moral Spaces, Michael Dillon (paraphrasing what William Connolly, also a contributor, calls "the ontopolitical") writes that "every political interpretation invokes a set of fundamentals about the necessities and possibilities of human being." Dillon’s essay, "The Scandal of the Refugee," also makes claims that "the refugee, like the human itself, is always both more and less than human." Reducing refugees to a metaphor for any given human in the throes of some existential crisis would likely infuriate the editors of Travel Worlds. The extent to which one can be convinced of claims like Dillon’s will probably determine one’s reaction to most of the essays collected in Moral Spaces.

Moral Spaces sets out to "redress the moral lacunae" in the field of inter- or post-national relations—the long-standing assumption that "self-interest" is the only principle governing relations, perhaps not always within, but always between nation states. More precisely, Moral Spaces is an attempt to get around the terms set up by the wearisome liberal-communitarian debate, first by showing the philosophical foundations of both positions to be identical (in that they both presuppose stable, or stabilizing, political subjects), and then by examining how political subjects are not given before relations, but constituted through relations. The question is how to characterize such relations. As their title indicates, the editors oí Moral Spaces would like us to consider characterizing relations as both moral and spatial.

In their "Introduction," and in each of their contributions ("The Deterritorialization of Responsibility" and "The Ethics of Encounter"), editors David Campbell and Michael J. Shapiro argue that Levinas and Derrida have shown that every "theory of ethics" or "moral cartography" ultimately elides the asymmetry and specificity of ethical relations. As Campbell and Shapiro put it, "the concern with Ethics obscures the contingencies and complexities of the ethical." While the point is well taken, beyond it I am not entirely convinced that applying Levinasian ethics (or Derrida’s reworking of Levinas’s claims) to post-national political relations is as fruitful as Campbell and Shapiro suggest.

There remain fierce political antagonisms throughout the world, antagonisms that distinguish political relations (indeed, political struggles) and that are not likely to be quelled through any appeal to an "infinite responsibility for the other." I would argue that politics requires different political subjects who occupy, and self-consciously occupy, the position of "other"—people who know that they are oppressed, that they are suffering, and that they can resist. In my opinion, political subjects come into existence through struggles, antagonisms and resistance. If I understand Levinas properly, for anyone to proclaim "I am other" would amount to the greatest violence imaginable—for it would collapse the infinite divide between self and other upon which Levinasian ethics is based. Conversely, the endless coming-into-exis-tence of new political subjects through struggles and resistance is what William Connolly, in his contribution to Moral Spaces, calls "the politics of becoming."

Interestingly, while the editors do not mention it, Connolly’s influence marks as many of the essays in Moral Spaces as does that of Levinas. In "Suffering, Justice and the Politics of Becoming" Connolly develops a selective reading of Nietzsche, arguing that a Nietzschean faith in the prolific "abundance of life" makes possible an affirmation of the ceaseless emergence of "new cultural identities" or political subjects "out of old energies, injuries and differences." This suggestion is very similar to what Derrida has been writing lately about "the work of mourning" and "democracy to come" (concepts to which many of the essays in Moral Spaces appeal). And while the distinction is porous and fleeting, it is perhaps to Nietzsche-Derrida, rather than Levinas-Derrida, that the question concerning post-national politics would best be put.

But I would not have arrived at these conclusions had I not read Moral Spaces, and I have failed to mention some of the stronger Levinas-Derrida sub-currents in Moral Spaces (the strongest being what Campbell calls "the politics of decision")- This collection is an important correction of the simplifications that typify the liberal-communitarian debate.

Not so with Michael Walzer’s On Toleration. For quite some time now Walzer has been trying to radicalize liberalism. On Toleration is, in part, an attempt to address the kinds of conundrums that keep postmodern liberals awake at night. Walzer wants to take the classic liberal concept of "tolerance" and argue that it is not (or not quite) what liberalism has always claimed it to be—namely a static and universal moral category or imperative.

Tolerance is not a category, Walzer argues, it is a process (hence "toleration"). Walzer’s "toleration" is not a universal and transcendent moral principle that must be applied uniformly, but a process that has had discrete expressions at different times in history and in different political and cultural contexts (different "regimes of toleration" as he puts it). Walzer examines five such "regimes of toleration," concluding with "immigrant societies," which are exemplified, not surprisingly, by the United States of America.

Early in his book, Walzer is sure to note that one of the limits of toleration is "some version of peaceful coexistence." Nothing should be tolerated that seeks to override the peaceful coexistence of determined political subjects or "groups," Walzer argues. It is only by the end of the book, once readers have been safely convinced of the great virtue of American liberalism, that Walzer ventures the following:

[Tloleration brings an end to persecution and tearfulness, but it is not a formula for

social harmony. The newly tolerated groups, insofar as they are really different, will often also be antagonistic, and they will seek political advantage. At question in On Toleration are not the limits of tolerance, but the definition of political space. Walzer would like to define a political space that allows for both peaceful coexistence and some measure of antagonism. A radical political platform indeed. Liberalism remains unable to imagine that it may not be a question of reinstating or maintaining the social institutions that guarantee fixed identities, but of thinking, even liberating, differences and relations that are always already prior to, and relentlessly producing new, identities.









Similar reviews

  • Fellow Travellers by Dean J. Irvine
    Books reviewed: Flying Blind by Gary Geddes and Leonel/Roque by Jim Smith
  • "We who are homeless" by Charles Barbour
    Books reviewed: Travel Worlds: Journeys in Contemporary Cultural Politics by John Hutnyk and Raminder Kaur, Moral Spaces: Rethinking Ethics and World Politics by David Campbell and Michael J. Shapiro, and On Toleration by Michael Walzer
  • Comparative Cultural Policy by Jonathan Paquette
    Books reviewed: Les Politiques culturelles provinciales et territoriales du Canada: Origines, évolutions et mises en œuvre by Monica Gattinger and Diane Saint-Pierre
  • Sparrow Nation by Christoph Irmscher
    Books reviewed: When the Eagle Screamed: The Romantic Horizon in American Expansionism, 1800-1860 by William Goetzmann, The Shaping of American Ethnography: The Wilkes Exploring Expedition by Barry Alan Joyce, and Elliott Coues: Naturalists and Frontier Historian by Michael J. Brodhead and Paul Russell Cutright
  • Hearing Voices by Klay Dyer
    Books reviewed: Public Men and Virtuous Women: The Gendered Languages of Religion and Politics in Upper Canada, 1791-1850 by Cecilia Morgan and I Bless You in My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill by Carl Ballstadt, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Michael Peterman


MLA: Barbour, Charles. "We who are homeless". canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #170-171 (Autumn/Winter 2001), Nature / Culture. (pg. 224 - 226)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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