Collaborations and Collisions in the Canadian Vortex

  • Gregory Betts (Editor), Paul Hjartarson (Editor) and Kristine Smitka (Editor)
    Counterblasting Canada: Marshall McLuhan, Wyndham Lewis, Wilfred Watson, and Sheila Watson. University of Alberta Press (purchase at

This collection of essays begins with its editors’ promise to articulate the paradoxical endurance of the short-lived vorticist movement of the 1910s. “Counterblasting Canada,” the editors tell us in their introduction, “examines a rich network of Canadian intersections with, and extrapolations of, the vorticist narrative.” While the legacy of vorticism informs most of Counterblasting Canada, the essays that follow its introduction differ greatly in their critical offerings even as they coincide and illuminate a narrative attentive to modernist and postmodernist discourses, patterns of influence, media theory, and the future of the humanities more generally.

Counterblasting Canada covers tremendous ground: Leon Surette offers a retrospective on McLuhan that thoughtfully honours and challenges his former PhD supervisor; Gregory Betts untangles the complex “nonlinear, atemporal, and simultaneous” consciousness McLuhan theorized and refined through his teaching and writing; Elena Lamberti imagines the ways in which McLuhan, Lewis, and Sheila Watson offered readers a defamiliarizing “awakening”; Adam Hammond charts patterns of influence in Sheila Watson’s and McLuhan’s respective readings of Lewis; Adam Welch outlines the “anti-environments” of Canadian visual art; Paul Tiessen traces Wilfred Watson’s collaborations with McLuhan; Philip Monk tells the story of General Idea, the “original bad boys of Canadian art”; Dean Irvine mines Sheila Watson’s oeuvre to explain her evolving interpretation of expressionism; Linda M. Morra studies the character of Felix from Watson’s The Double Hook as a way of explaining McLuhan’s concept of “counter-environments”; Kristine Smitka discusses evolving philosophies of photography and language in the thinking of Sheila Watson, Lewis, and McLuhan; and Darren Wershler ends the book with an artful and lucid reflection on interdisciplinary scholarship, media studies, and creative futures in the humanities.

As I read Counterblasting Canada, I had much to say about its take on twentieth-century art and aesthetics; at the same time, I found myself thinking a great deal about Harold Bloom for a few reasons. First, because he once said that literary criticism “is the art of knowing the hidden roads” that go from one text to others. In many ways, that is the achievement of Counterblasting Canada: it charts unusual paths by establishing and exploring concrete links among Lewis, McLuhan, Sheila Watson, and Wilfred Watson. While every essay is rich in theory and critical reflection, it is witnessing career- and life-altering conversations unfold on every page of this book that is sometimes most engrossing. Those conversations are made all the more impressive by the archival research peppered throughout. Moreover, in putting these conversations on display, Counterblasting Canada does much to debunk myths of “solitary genius,” at least in Canada—and the editors make it clear that they wish to do so particularly in the case of McLuhan. To prove the existence of a community of intellectuals and to map their encounters, conflicts, and partnerships are much more arduous and productive tasks than to argue solitary genius. The refusal to shy away from the difficulty of constructing a social and intellectual web is one of the outstanding achievements of Counterblasting Canada.

I thought of Bloom for other reasons, though. The editors and contributors say much about vorticism, modernism, postmodernism, and pedagogy (as well as about McLuhan’s notions of media, the social function of art, and counter-environments), but they say little about a theory of influence—though they do a terrific job of noting and studying instances of influence from a historical standpoint. Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence may not have provided the most appropriate critical lens, but I was hoping to see more made of influence via Clayton, Friedman, Kristeva, or Rothstein (to name a few examples). That yearning, though, is my compliment: Counterblasting Canada maps a history of influence so compelling and dynamic—there is much made throughout these essays of Lewis’ impact on McLuhan, McLuhan’s impact on Sheila Watson, and so on—that it compels the reader to think more deeply on such issues. The concept seems to underpin many, if not all, of the chapters in Counterblasting Canada. Some essays are lucid discussions of influence that, in their own right, might be of use to future scholars of any field (Canadian or otherwise): in particular, Hammond and Wershler offer two of the strongest pieces in Counterblasting Canada by thinking about the processes, strategies, and lasting impact of specific and general influences in the humanities.

The model of influence presented in Counterblasting Canada is compelling because it is partly a site of conflict. Influence is collegial collaboration at times, yes—but it is also contest. Sheila Watson, Morra proposes, “maintains that violence” is one way of responding when “communication has failed.” It’s a striking observation for Morra to make, given how often the writers studied in this book disagree with their mentors and colleagues: Surette questions McLuhan even as he praises him, and Tiessen presents a meticulous narrative of Wilfred Watson’s fraught collaboration with McLuhan on From Cliché to Archetype (which precipitated their estrangement after 1969). In Counterblasting Canada, influence is neither an unchallenged mentorship nor an uncritical apprenticeship. Influence is instead—to adapt Wershler’s term (who himself borrows it from Raymond Williams)—a kind of “residuality”: a “persistent element of the past that continues to play an active role” in the present. In Counterblasting Canada, the reception of that residuality is sometimes enthusiastic and sometimes caustic, but it remains a constant dialogue that contrasts with the bland myths of solitary genius that the contributors to this book so carefully avoid.

Counterblasting Canada will have obvious appeal to communications, media studies, or Canadian literature scholars (especially those interested in the recent conversations about later modernism, intermodernism, and the like taking place in American literary discourses), but it is also quite possibly a catalyst for further consideration of what literary collaborations and intellectual collisions occur or have occurred in Canada’s community of writers.

This review “Collaborations and Collisions in the Canadian Vortex” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 126-128.

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