Monday, January 14, 2013
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.
Posted by Scott Neigh at Monday, January 14, 2013