Studying Canadian Studies in a Trans-Cultural Age

  • Dirk Hoerder
    To Know Our Many Selves: From the Study of Canada to Canadian Studies. Athabasca University Press
Reviewed by Karl Jirgens

Dirk Hoerder’s To Know Our Many Selves: From the Study of Canada to Canadian Studies is an ambitious and comprehensive analysis covering years of detailed historical records. The purpose of Hoerder’s analysis is to trace the history of Canadian Studies, which according to Hoerder, began roughly in the mid 1800s. Integrating perspectives on sociological, cultural and political phenomena, this book is divided into three major sections, including “I. Framing Research on Canada: Burdens and Achievements of the Past,” “II. From Privileged Discourses to Research on Social Spaces,” and “III. Perspectives.” The latter section provides observations on the past, present, and future of Canadian Studies. Beginning with the colonial period, this analysis pursues European settlement from the arrival of Giovanni Caboto (1497) in Newfoundland, and proceeds to trace representations, interpretations, and perceptions of Canada up to the present day. Hoerder got his M.A. from the University of Minnesota and his Ph.D. from the Free University of Berlin; he served as President of the Association of Canadian Studies, and he currently teaches at Arizona State University. This book is inspired by Hoerder’s desire to introduce students to links between teaching, academic research, and engaged scholarship, with specific reference to Canada and studies of North American cultural history. This publication is available on-line, at no cost to the user, a fact that supports the book’s open and trans-cultural position.

Hoerder’s study incorporates a movement from nation-based to trans-cultural perspectives, and arises in part from colonial (or postcolonial) studies while demonstrating an in-depth awareness of Canadian scholarship, politics, economics, religion, class structure, civil rights, gender issues, Indigenous cultural matters, immigrant cultures, advances in communications, movements in education, innovations in science, as well as developments in literature and the arts. While reflecting on all such concerns, Hoerder examines in considerable detail our collective memory, and how what he calls our “master narratives” have represented us over the past 500 years. He points out that our earlier cultural history was written largely by Francophone or Anglophone men who were inspired by their connections to socio-cultural and political-economic views arising from France and Britain. He also traces how these self-defining histories were eventually re-written to include broader trans-cultural perspectives. Hoerder is careful to define his own subject position which arises out of post-World-War II Germany, where the United States served as one of several liberators from fascism but then moved to the rebuilding of Germany, and became an Orwellian “big brother” or what Hoerder calls “a cultural hegemon.” This book provides candid views of multiple colonizations, while elucidating and contextualizing Canadian studies within an interdisciplinary framework characterized by frequently contradictory discourses. Hoerder illuminates the dialogics of these contradicting discourses within a chronological framework. To Know Our Many Selves provides an interdisciplinary overview and a relatively “deep” sense of history including detailed references to First Nations peoples, Francophones, Anglophones, Allophones, women’s movements, waves of immigrants, and recent trans-cultural developments.

To strike a balance between manifold disciplines, multi-cultural viewpoints, as well as interactions between conflicting social groups, and an inexorable shift towards trans-culturalization is no mean feat, but Hoerder manages to be inclusive rather than exclusive throughout most of this analysis. Hoerder candidly admits that any attempt to examine Canadian Studies must be a “work in progress.” If there are weaknesses here, they arise from the fact that some cultural nuances are not fully addressed. For example, with reference to literature, W. H. New’s A History of Canadian Literature (1989), and Edward D. Blodgett’s Five-Part Invention: A History of Literary History in Canada (2003) are considered, but other relevant literary studies by critical thinkers including Frank Davey or Linda Hutcheon receive only cursory mention. Other thinkers directly related to key perspectives in this book, including Barbara Godard, Nicole Brossard, Pauline Butling, and Susan Rudy receive no mention. Conversely, Hoerder’s tracing of larger socio-political ideologies is more nuanced. Perhaps the greatest strength in this book lies in the tracking of various “master narratives” of Canada throughout history. While this is not an entirely complete study, it is remarkable in its ability to condense a broad range of information that will help us to know ourselves better. Hoerder successfully encapsulates clashes between older “nation-state” ideologies and emergent discourses of decolonization which recognize the women’s movement, changing racial and cultural hierarchies, and processes of socialization in which cultural borders became fluid. In addition, Hoerder’s To Know Our Many Selves helps identify historiographic, hegemonic and obsolete master narratives, while recognizing Canada as a site of evolving socio-cultural identities that have begun to transcend political borders by merging with diverse global mores.

This review “Studying Canadian Studies in a Trans-Cultural Age” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 162-163.

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