Ideas in Things

Reviewed by Dougal McNeill

Schitt’s Creek streams on Netflix here in New Zealand, but I have a hard time convincing friends that it is Canadian and not American content. Stevie’s fear of a single life in Saskatchewan—to me an evocative aside—carries no argumentative weight with my doubters; special pleading for what Stephen Henighan asked for in the “commitment to local detail” is under-read by consumers used to reading, in this other settler colony with a more powerful neighbour, the unspecified as American.

A better approach to understanding this simultaneously Canadian-produced and globally consumed product, suggest the essays in Gillian Roberts’ thoughtful and wide-ranging edited collection, would be to eschew content analysis for a focus on the mechanics, economics, and methods of television production and distribution. The book’s contributors, Roberts tells us, examine

what actually happens in cross-border cultural production and consumption by tracing the cross-border movements of cultural objects, some of which are conventionally understood and circulated as Canadian, and some as American.

Rather than focusing on the battles over provenance that animated earlier nationalisms, these essays pay attention to what is generative in the many crossings cultural products make, from development to circulation, between Canadian and American spaces. What happens to Canadian romance novels, and to their writers, as they negotiate an American market accustomed to seeing itself as the universal audience? How do Canadian media workers operate as part of the “international pit crew” in the digital effects industry? What do the inscriptions and images of the Underground Railroad Monument in Detroit and Windsor reveal about how race and racism are acknow-ledged, or deflected, in state narratives of Canadian identity? These are just some of the questions prompted by the collection’s varied, lively chapters.

Reading Between the Borderlines works in the best traditions of cultural studies, bringing the skills of attentive close reading and literary analysis to unexpected, but significant, objects. No ideas but in things! Michael Stamm’s fascinating chapter on the politics of content and the Chicago Tribune starts not with text but with trees, and follows the “lifecycle of a printed text” from Canadian forest to Chicago breakfast table. Similarly, Richard Sutherland’s chapter on music corrects the scholarly focus on “the nationality of musical content” by exploring the “(largely industrial) means by which it circulates.” The Canadian recording industry has been, he points out, for most of its existence “a manufacturing industry.” Alyssa MacLean’s work on the Black open letter shows how the border “facilitated” transformations in Black agency and action.

The result of a 2014 conference in England, Reading Between the Borderlines reads as a moment preserved rather than dated. Its chapters circle back on the project and assumptions of Harper’s Conservative government, giving them an eerie relevance. In the Trump era, early-century enthusiasms over globalization and cosmopolitanism feel more distant than ongoing battles over racialized subjects, exclusions, and fears. Canada’s recent past tells us something about America’s present.

This review “Ideas in Things” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 164-165.

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