Sunday, October 04, 2015

Review: Critical Inquiries

[Lynn Caldwell, Carianne Leung, and Darryl Leroux, editors. Critical Inquiries: A Reader in Studies of Canada. Halifax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2013.]

Studying the phenomenon we call "Canada" in a critical way is nothing new, but I think this book is an attempt to make critical Canadian Studies a bit more clearly visible as an approach with a name, as well as to present a one-stop resource for bringing it into classrooms. It brings together ten essays, as well as a Foreword and Afterword by a couple of higher profile scholars, that take up different methodologies and focus on different issues, and that end up providing an interesting survey that, as the cover says, seeks to frame "Canada as an ongoing colonial project."

Thinking critically about nation and nationalism in the Canadian context is something that has been a pretty central interest for me for a long time, including lots that appears on this blog and my own books. When I did an MA a few years ago, I successfully pushed against some initial administrative resistance to do a reading course on the subject. And my once-and-future Next Big Project, at least in its current version, is not only (as I've mostly described it) about knowing the world through encounter, relation, and movement, but also about using such approaches to knowing the world to reach some critical insights about the Canadian state, nation, and nationalism. So this book is right up my alley.

Overall, I would say that the book is not earth-shaking, but it provides some useful tools and new ideas in a package that, as I say, will probably be quite useful to some teachers in universities. In terms of specific quibbles, I think the title is poorly chosen -- I get how hard titles can be, as someone who has to come up with at least one and sometimes several each week, and I know I tend to err on the side of the long and/or obscure, but I just don't think enough of the key information about this book is captured in the phrase Critical Inquiries. I was also disappointed with two of the essays. I'm not going to single them out, in part because I'm not objecting to their content or analysis -- they said interesting things, I just think they needed quite a bit more re-writing.

Perhaps the most important intervention in the book comes in the Foreword by Rinaldo Walcott, which the Afterword by Sherene Razack returns to, in its challenge to readers and scholars to knit together a single analysis dealing deeply and well with both settler colonialism and anti-Blackness. Doing both of those things at once is something very little writing produced in the Canadian context -- or, at least, very little that I've seen -- has done, and I feel both relatively clueless and very thirsty to read good work in this area. (I appreciated how Razack, in her contribution, ties this lack to one of her important longstanding ideas, the 'race to innocence', which is also a central aspect of privilege in general and a key practice of Canadianness for many of us.) Given how important this area of work is, it was a bit disappointing that it was not really taken up in an integral way in many of the rest of the essays.

I also find it intriguing that class and capitalism are not more present in at least some of the accounts. And I know that in saying this, I risk being perceived as one of those white guys who insists we need to "get back to class" -- they come in variants that are more openly dismissive of race and gender and so on, and variants that do take serious and sophisticated consideration of such things but still insist on a 'class first' approach that somewhat more subtly deemphasizes them -- but I am emphatically not one of those. But I still think that, even given the book's entirely appropriate foregrounding of the colonial, class relations are one element of the overall complex interlocking mix of social relations that warrant a little more consideration than they were mostly given in this collection.

There was lots of other good stuff, though. Three of the essays, for instance, examine in detail the roles of three key Royal Commissions -- as stereotypically Canadian a method of state formation as ever there was -- in the development of regimes of racialized power since the Second World War. Royal Commissions are not exactly sexy stuff, but they have been the site of some crucial work in the production of the present. There was one essay by Michele Byers and Stephanie Tara Schwartz taking up cultural studies and Mizrahi studies approaches to examine questions of Jewish difference in the Canadian context, and while this is not directly relevant to my own work it certain was fascinating. Carrianne Leung's look at two public history projects focused on Chinese presence in Moose Jaw was a very useful case study of racialized memory making, and I think her conclusions about the need for a much more complex approach to thinking about critical and insurgent histories are important. I very much appreciated Lynn Caldwell's use of Sara Ahmed's work on affect and the nation, as well as her challenging of dominant notions of "reconciliation" that are circulating currently in Canada. Damien Lee -- one of my past interview participants on Talking Radical Radio -- contributed a very powerful piece that deals with questions of Indigenous authenticity, colonial identity regulation, the oppressive character of binary difference-making, and cultural appropriation as a distributed mechanism of enforcing colonial identity categories. And Mary-Jo Nadeau provocatively takes apart the process of public commemoration of the "Famous Five" women who won the battle for (white) women in Canada to be legally recognized as persons, and examines the gendered white nationalism at the core of that commemoration.

So. Lots of interesting bits and pieces, and a few bits and pieces that felt less useful. I definitely think it will find a place in classrooms, though frankly I think that the form of the scholarly collection may not be as effective in shaking loose readers' assumptions about nation and nationalism as the more full development of ideas, passion, and narrative momentum possible in many of the well-done single-author books by some of the names I cited in the second last paragraph of this recent post.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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