CanLit as Critical Genealogy

    For Smaro Kamboureli

In CanLit, there is no “before” the trouble. . . . CanLit is in trouble, and it is the trouble. How do we stay with it, and how do we
make new kin?
—Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, Refuse: CanLit in Ruins

In his paper “Daring the Truth: Foucault, Parrhesia and the Genealogy of Critique,” philosopher Andreas Folkers notes that in the aftermath of the revolts of 1968, Michel Foucault began to allude to an increasing “criticizability of things, institutions, practices, and discourses” (qtd. in Folkers 3). What Foucault characterized as the “dispersed and discontinuous offensives” (Foucault 5) of 1968 and after, including “the new wave of feminism, gay and lesbian movements, struggles against psychiatry, prison and medicine, anti-authority struggles, etc.,” effectively “expanded the scope of critique by rendering hitherto hidden forms of power visible” (Folkers 3). But these revolts also “manifested the limits” of certain “dominant modes of criticism” (Folkers 4). In this context, Foucault argued that genealogy could function as a new “knowledge of struggles” (Foucault 8), and “a new form of critique” (Folkers 4).

We find ourselves now in our own moment of struggle, catalyzed by a variety of social revolts against imperialism, state-sanctioned racism, and misogyny, such as #BlackLivesMatter, the TRC Calls to Action, Wet’suwet’en resistance against the construction of a Coastal GasLink pipeline on its traditional territory, and the #MeToo movement, to name only a few salient “dispersed and discontinuous offensives” unfolding in our time. In this context, scholars, writers, artists, and students, many in precarious social and institutional positions, have been undertaking the brave public work of confronting the structures of power which have sedimented in a range of Canadian cultural institutions. As the scope of critique expands beyond literary studies to include Canadian universities, creative writing programs, literary presses, magazines, and prize committees—a diverse range of cultural sites which have their own particular and overlapping histories and practices but which are increasingly coming to be hailed under the sign CanLit—it is an appropriate time to pause and to ask questions about the modes of criticism that are emerging; the limits of discursive tactics, and whether genealogy, as Foucault theorized it, may reveal more “knowledge of [our] struggles” in CanLit.

In their introduction to Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker write that “Canada and its literature” were “built on the same foundation of Indigenous genocide, anti-Blackness, anglophone dominance, racist immigration policies, eugenicist attitudes toward disabled people, and deep-rooted misogyny that the rest of Canada was built on” (21).

They also ask, “how do we stay with it, and make new kin?”

In “Elegy for Wong Toy,” a poem Robert Kroetsch published in his 1976 collection The Stone Hammer Poems, the poet-speaker excavates the historical contingencies of his emergence, existence, and becoming. This process involves claiming a critical genealogy. I say “critical” because it involves thinking in radically non-essentialist terms about partial, intersecting, and contradictory histories: histories of descent, migration,
and empire, including the genocidal clearing of the prairie; the construction of the transcontinental railway, and the racist Chinese Exclusion Act. It involves thinking genealogically against the grain of national history. Kroetsch writes:

Charlie        you are dead now
but I dare to speak because
in China the living speak
to their kindred     dead.
And you are one of my fathers. (43)

Working genealogically, as Foucault reminds us, is an “agonistic” process. What genealogies do is reveal problems and discontinuities. Instead of revealing unitary formations (e.g., “the nation,” or CanLit, or CanLit-as-the-nation), genealogies elaborate the chasms and ambiguities that have existed in discourses and institutions across time. As Ryan Fitzpatrick argued on Twitter in response to Simon Lewsen’s characterization of CanLit as a “broadly progressive consensus,” “Nope. What gets called CanLit is historically a site of struggle” (@ryanfitzpublic).

What I am trying to say is this. Not only is there a genealogy of struggle in CanLit, there is a genealogy of struggle as CanLit. What I mean is Canadian literature as a critical discourse.

“make it new,” writes Roy Miki in his collection Surrender.

i have altered my tactics to reflect the new era
already the magnolia broken by high winds
heals itself
the truncated branches already
speak to me. (9)

Tracing a partial, agonistic, and discontinuous genealogy of Canadian literature as critical discourse would involve thinking through the connections, to varying degrees, of the critical and creative practices of scores of writers and scholars whose discourses have been directed precisely toward challenging the nation’s genocidal policies, its anti-Blackness, its environmental exploitation and deep-rooted misogyny. A partial genealogy of CanLit as critical discourse would think, for instance, through the work of Smaro Kamboureli, including her transformative anthology Making a Difference (1996; 2nd ed. 2007), which offered a model for how to construct a CanLit that includes Black, Indigenous, and racialized perspectives. A genealogy of CanLit as critical discourse would also think through the struggle-work of Roy Miki, back through the Writing Thru Race Conference; it would think through the prescient work of M. NourbeSe Philip, whose essays in Frontiers were already centering issues of racism in the wider culture industries. Indeed, Frontiers offers a rich archive of such anti-racism work in the arts. And before that, Vision 21: Canadian Culture in the 21st Century, a group which was formed in 1989 around issues of diversity, racism, and the arts. It would think back to the group De Dub Poets, formed in the mid-1980s; it would remember Lillian Allen’s groundbreaking dub album Revolutionary Tea Party; and before that, the 1983 Fireweed issue called “The Issue is ’Ism: Women of Colour Speak Out,” edited by Nila Gupta and Makeda Silvera. In these pages racialized and Indigenous women writers wrote about racism, sexism, classism, imperialism. Contributors included Himani Bannerji, Claire Harris, Sylvia Hamilton, Prabha Khosla, Cecilia A. Green, Claire Prieto (one of the first black filmmakers in Canada) and many others. Before this issue was Makeda Silvera’s Women and Words Conference, which raised the issue of racism in writing and publishing in Canada. We might continue to trace this genealogy back further through the work of Maria Campbell, E. Pauline Johnson, Mary Ann Shadd, and back further through the meditations on freedom and anti-Blackness in the Canadian slave narratives of Sophia Pooley, Reverend Alexander Hemsley, Francis Henderson, and Mrs. Frances Henderson (see Drew; Kamboureli).

And these are also my kin.
The truncated branches already speak to me.

What I have sketched above is only one very partial line of critique in and as Canadian literature. With more time and space, I would elaborate other important genealogies of feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and decolonial struggle.

Tracing a genealogy of Canadian literature as critical discourse is not the same thing as recuperating CanLit. Far from it. As Foucault made clear, genealogy does not ask “what is” just to proclaim “what should be”; it poses another question: “how did ‘that what is’ come into being, and how can it become otherwise?” (Folkers 5; Foucault 46).

In this moment of deep and important critical work, of expanding the scope of critique by rendering hidden forms of power visible across Canadian cultural institutions, practices, and discourses, I want to remember the genealogies of struggle developed within Canadian literature as critical discourse in order to bring these lines of struggle-work out of the ruins and forward into the moment that is coming.

Works Cited
Allen, Lillian. Revolutionary Tea Party. World Records, 1986.
Drew, Benjamin. A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee; or, The Narrative of Fugitive Slaves in Canada Related by Themselves. With an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada. 1856. Negro UP, 1968.
Folkers, Andreas. “Daring the Truth: Foucault, Parrhesia and the Genealogy of Critique.”
Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 33, no. 1, 2016, pp. 3-28.
Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976.
Translated by David Macey, Picador, 2003.
Gupta, Nila, and Makeda Silvera, editors. The Issue is ’Ism: Women of Colour Speak Out. Sister Vision, 1989.
Kamboureli, Smaro, editor. Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literatures in English. 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 2007.
Kroetsch, Robert. The Stone Hammer Poems. Oolichan, 1976.
Lewsen, Simon. “The CanLit Firestorm: After the Steven Galloway Controversy, Canadian Literature May Never Be the Same.” The Walrus, 24 Nov. 2016, Accessed 7 Nov. 2019.
McGregor, Hannah, Julie Rak, and Erin Wunker, editors. Refuse: CanLit in Ruins. Book*hug, 2018.
Miki, Roy. “make it new.” Surrender. Mercury, 2001.
Philip, M. NourbeSe. Frontiers: Selected Essays and Writing on Racism and Culture,
1984-1992. Mercury, 1992.
@ryanfitzpublic. “Nope. What gets called CanLit is historically a site of struggle.” Twitter, 24 Nov. 2016, 11:22 a.m., Accessed 7 Nov. 2019.

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