Monday, January 14, 2013

Writing the Nation

Most of us, most of the time, act like we know what we're talking about when we speak or write of "Canada." Their exact content may vary with our politics and preconceptions, but our communications are littered with statements which have the form of treating "Canada" and "Canadians" as categories that we can meaningfully talk of as being certain ways and doing certain things: "Canadians are so polite" or "Canada is no longer the peacekeeper it once was" or "Who knows what impact the global recession will have on Canada." This is true when we use those terms completely monolithically in casual speech. It is also true when we are being more formal and careful -- speaking of differences of opinion among Canadians, for example, or engaging in the perpetual cycle of soft-nationalist who-are-we-really angst that periodically grips at least a portion of the nation. There are many different ways that the container "Canada" gets filled, but even when difference, debate, or change over time are acknowledged in the content we use to fill it, there is still an underlying assumption of coherence, of essence, of thing-ness that makes it possible to speak in these ways, and similarly makes it almost illegible to act like "Canada" and "Canadians" actually need substantially more explanation than they ever get.

But look at how "Canada" actually appears in your life at the level of everyday experience. Some examples: I look on the twenty dollar bill in my wallet and see both the word "Canada" and the picture of a very rich woman who lives in England. From conversation in schoolyards, barbershops, checkout lines, and bus stops, and from much I see in the media, I know that a certain affective relationship to hockey is expected (particularly from men) and is firmly linked in imagination and conversation to "Canada." I look on my bookshelves and know that those novels with, for example, Margaret Atwood's name on the cover are commonly understood to be connected with "Canada." I have frequently seen on the news young men with a maple leaf on their uniform that links them to "Canada" engaged in activities that predictably and inevitably (given how modern warfare works) will involve killing Central Asian civilians. At a break in the news coverage, I see an advertisement for beer whose branding is tightly bound up with "Canada."

It's easy enough to go along with the tendency to relate to "Canada" as a coherent and knowable (if not always known) thing and to see the relation among all of the phenomena just listed as natural, inevitable, and eminently sensible. That is the magic of the nation, after all -- it makes all of those disparate things, and probably a far wider range than that as well, seem like they all fit together in a way that makes sense and does not need to be explained.

But step back a moment. Take any pair of those. Take, for instance, that certain expected (and widely though not universally held) affect towards hockey and the rich English woman on the green piece of paper in my wallet. Explain to me in grounded, step-by-step ways what those two things have to do with each other, why it makes sense for those two things to be connected through "Canada." Or what about between Cat's Eye and the death of the Afghan child whose house was caved in by the bombs dropped by the U.S. American planes called in by the young man from St. John's with the maple leaf on his arm. Materially, practically, what is the link between those two things, if you don't take the magical thinking of the category "Canada" as pre-empting the need for an explanation?

I'm not saying that those questions are unanswerable, though the answers aren't necessarily obvious. The point I'm making is that, most of the time, no need is seen to ask those questions.

As part of a larger project that is hovering on my horizon, and in connection with some very intensive reading I did last summer, I'm trying to think through how exactly we should write the nation -- what does the term "Canada" encompass, what work does it do, how does whatever is going on underneath the surface of that term relate to me and my life, how should I write about it all. And it seems to me, from what I have already said, that the starting point is to treat the gathering of all that is gathered under that term, the vast array of phenomena and the dazzling diversity of relations among them, as in need of exploration and explanation rather than inherently just-how-things-are. There are things that happen all around us, people doing things and people relating to other people in particular ways, which are somehow linked to "Canada" and linked to each other through "Canada." And we need to figure out how all of that works. We can't treat it as given, as by-definition coherent and stable and knowable. And we can't assume a priori that any of those connections are necessary ones -- they may, indeed, all be contingent, and we have to investigate and reflect up on that too.

Those of us who live here and are unavoidably bound up in the practices and relations that underlie "Canada" can't not talk and write about it as we seek to act in the world and create change. And perhaps from a starting point that looks something like this, we can develop better ways to do so, better understandings of what it means to be thus bound, and better tools to act for justice and liberation in the face of such a starting point.


Altavistagoogle said...

Good grief. It is where we live. Its not a religion or a cult or even a culture. Obviously, because of our shared federal government, people in BC and NB have things in common. But certainly no more so than between people in NB and Maine.

Although I will grant you that the Leafs are more popular in Atlantic Canada than the Boston Bruins, despite their geographic proximity.

Scott Neigh said...

:) Well, that's certainly one common way of talking about the kinds of things I raise in the post. And certainly a juxtoposition that comes from sharing place is one way that things that are understood as to do with "Canada" might get linked. So is the fact that said place is organized and regulated in part by a federal state. But I think because of the way we have of treating nation as natural, inevitable, and not in need of being explained, it is easy to treat those two factors as if they explain much more than they actually do.

To take a small example, the presence of a physical territory under the control of a state does not, on its own, explain why there is this relationship to hockey that is associated with "Canada." Why hockey? Why is such a broad category or social form connected at all to a particular normative emotional connection with a particular sport? Why is there even a social form that incorporates that normative emotional connection with, say, pictures of a wealthy woman from England on green pieces of paper, and some (but not so much other) novels written by people living in that territory, and socialized medical care, and so on? And of course the examples I use in the post are limited and arbitrary, and the actual range of things that are associated in one way or another with "Canada" is much broader, and "It is where we live" just isn't adequate to account for why those things rather than others, why those forms of connection and not others, and why should there be a social form at all that does all of the things that "Canada" happens to do.

(As well, part of your point seems to be that nation doesn't really matter that much. Which is often fair enough -- there are other forms of social organization that intertwine with nation but are not reducible to it that mean folks in Maine and NB have lots in common too. Asking questions about nation definitely should not lead to ignoring these other aspects of social organization, though I think once you follow the chain of questions a little bit one of the things that emerges is the need to understand how nation and these other aspects interrelate.)

dru said...

I'd define Canada based on the exercise of power and power relations. For better or for worse, that's what hold this wildly diverse geographical together. The Queen, and the country's status as a Dominion speaks to that. Hockey as a signifier of cultural unity, I think, derives from the institutions and relationships that were developed based on the limitations and exigencies of those power relations. Those were developed mainly -- as Harper and company have insightfully identified -- because of various wars for the control of territory.

In terms of rethinking Canada, the things to draw on are the shared history that results from the exercise of power, and the future needs and common interests that will arise in relation to the exercise of power.

A positive cultural identity would be, I would hope at least, based on the actual shared history and the particularities of the people who live here. Trying to construct something like that earnestly could be a useful way, I think, of highlighting the more or less apartheid system that's in place now.

Scott Neigh said...

Hey, Dru.

It's likely that where this line of inquiry is going to take me will look something like what you've described, in terms of "Canada" and power and so on, though I may end up using somewhat different language. My main task in this particular post was to begin figuring out how to write past the reified and magical dominant notion of the nation, using experience as a resource.

And your mention of past wars and the nation -- well, it's too early for me to say much, but that is very much connected to the hazy and still indistinct larger project that this post was one small piece of thinking my way towards.

Thanks for reading!