Unarresting Borders

Reviewed by Lorraine York

These two distinguished volumes take part in a crucial and exciting cultural-studies-inflected conversation about the politics of Canadian cultural production. Turning our attention away from a search for a distinctive Canadian culture defined by a search for common elements, towards the ethically challenging analysis of intra-national (and, indeed, contra-national) relations of power, these studies disclose the exclusions practiced by the search for a national culture.

Linda Morra’s Unarrested Archives draws from Derrida’s foundational Archive Fever, in particular his etymological exploration of the term archive which stems from the Greek arkheion, the home of the superior magistrates or archons, where official documents were kept, in Derrida’s suggestive words, under “house arrest.” In her study of twentieth-century Canadian women writers Pauline Johnson, Emily Carr, Sheila Watson, Jane Rule, and Marlene NourbeSe Philip, Morra perceptively expands upon this notion of “arrest” in order to examine “how the literary archives of Canadian women writers came to be forged within, against, or outside centralized repositories of official records.” That might mean, in Pauline Johnson’s case, the loss of pre-1929 archives during their transfer from the University of Reading to the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas at Austin, which points synecdochally to the contemporary disregard for the value of literary women’s documents. It also means, in Morra’s reading of Johnson’s stage career, performance is an evanescent archive of embodied cultural memory. (Performance theorist Peggy Phelan’s observation that “Performance’s being . . . becomes itself through disappearance” is apt.) For Carr and Watson, it means operating through male agents to ensure access to a public sphere that devalued women’s cultural production. And, in the most fascinating case of all, that of Marlene NourbeSe Philip, it means refusing to deposit one’s archives in a traditional repository, as an act of resistance to the nation-building cultural exercise that those repositories undergird. These case studies expand our notions of archive, making us aware of the many manifestations of archival practice that resist “arrest” and exceed the boundaries of traditional archival repositories. In so reading these five very different engagements with archive, Morra tends to resolve each instance of “unarrest” into resistant cultural practice. It is tempting to do so, but there are times when, for instance, Carr’s collaboration with powerful male mentors and intermediaries can also be seen as complicit, just as Morra fully recognizes the complicity with nation-building ideologies that Carr enacted in her attempts to build an artistic archive out of Indigenous material culture, denying “Indigenous persons the very agencies she was seeking for herself.” Notwithstanding this understandable desire to read these arrested and unarrested archives for evidence of women’s resistant practices, Morra brilliantly succeeds in her objectives to “enlarge[e] critical scholarship about what constitutes the archive” and to encourage researchers to “reconsider how to expand their methods from arrested to unarrested archives”—how to see the powerful operations of archival production in acts that might look, from a conventional viewpoint, like archival absence or failure.

Gillian Roberts also draws inspiration from Derrida, in this case his theories of hospitality, as she did in her previous study of prize culture, Prizing Literature: The Celebration and Circulation of National Culture (2011). In Discrepant Parallels, Roberts engages with Derrida’s coinage “hostipitality,” that amalgam of hostility and welcome that Derrida sees contradictorily at work in acts of hospitality, to read Canadian border texts that are similarly mixed in their gestures of welcome and renunciation. Like Morra’s reading of Canadian women’s literary archives, Roberts turns her attention to the border as a site of intra-national engagements. Wary of a reading of the border that seeks to construct a monolithic Canadianness by distinguishing it from a similarly monolithic Americanness (what one might call the Molson “I Am Canadian” approach), Roberts shows how engagements with the border—whether in Anglo-Canadian nationalist texts such as David McFadden’s Great Lakes Suite, or from Indigenous perspectives by writers Jeannette Armstrong, Thomas King, and Drew Hayden Taylor, or in African-Canadian texts by Lawrence Hill, Djanet Sears, and Wade Compton—“puncture, temper, supplement, or contradict the culturally dominant view of the border’s significance to Canada” as the marking off of the mythic peaceable kingdom.

Several contributions made by this thoughtful book deserve special mention: Roberts devotes a chapter to televisual representations of the border in Bordertown (1989-91), Due South (1994-1999), and The Border (2008-2010) in which she compellingly reads these texts, like others in her study, alongside their respective contemporary historical events: the Free Trade Agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and 9/11. Roberts also considers, as many analyses of the Canada-US borderland condition do not, its hemispheric context; this “critical borderlands practice” allows Roberts to think about the ways in which the Canada-US border, so often read by Canadian observers as a space of disempowerment, can also look like a site of privilege, when one thinks about the politics of the Canada-Mexico border. Once again, though, Roberts brings these relations of power inside her study of Canadian cultural politics; in readings of Janette Turner Hospital’s Borderline, Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line, and Guillermo Verdecchia’s Fronteras Americanas/American Borders, Roberts ponders how power relations “are manifested at the 49th parallel at the same time as negotiations of power at other border sites in the Americas are brought to bear on Canada’s relationship to the United States.” This is sophisticated, assumption-breaking transnational criticism.

In studying archives that may be “unarrested,” that may rupture our notions of the archive as physical, state-sanctioned repository of documents, and in studying a border that undeniably imposes material inequities and yet is the site of radically different imaginings and political meanings, Linda Morra and Gillian Roberts offer us a Canadian cultural analysis that urges us to look inside Canadian cultural practices, acknowledging within them both the “arresting” of meaning by privilege and the “discrepancies” that can empower decolonizing acts of “unarresting.”

This review “Unarresting Borders” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 147-49.

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