Skip to content

What does Fifteen Dogs tell us about Canadian diversity?

Canadian universities are being asked to consider how the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion are affecting our scholarship, research, and teaching. Here, I am wondering how these principles could change the questions we ask about literature. Fifteen Dogs, the site of a fictional experiment on the nature of what the text posits as “human intelligence” affords a good opportunity to ask this question. Does the text see human intelligence as singular or diverse? How does the plot depict it? First, the subtitle names the text an apologue, a moral fable with animals as characters. However, this fiction provides no clear resolution to the dilemmas it raises. If there is a message, it is that everyone mortal must die, and that fact makes life meaningful. The power of the text comes out of its working through the details of seventeen deaths (fifteen dogs and two humans) and the questions they raise for readers about identity, community, grief and happiness, and the nature of a life well lived..

The “DRAMATIS CANES” (n.p. Capitals in original) at the front of the text carefully identifies each dog by name, sex, and breed. Is this naming meant to distinguish the dogs from the usual dramatis personae or to suggest that they may figure equally in their difference? That is, might they be considered persons in their own right? For the gods and humans in the text, sex and gender identities remain important, and ethnic identities are not addressed, although the species distinctions between the immortals and mortals is an important recurring theme. For the dogs, breed, sex and size matter, mainly for the way in which they and others perceive them. The sex of the dogs also matters, to the dogs themselves, to readers, and to the success of the experiment because of the rapid way in which an initially sex-balanced sample for Hermes and Apollo’s experiment rapidly gives way to one conducted with male participants only. Scientists now recognize that women are not just hypervariant males and that experiments conducted on male subjects alone constitute bad science. There is no evidence in this text that the two male gods who launch this experiment recognize or care that their results may be skewed, nor is the supposedly omniscient narrator troubled by the rapid elimination of females from the experimental pool. Both gods interfere with the progress of the experiment in ways that obviously invalidate its conclusions as a legitimate experiment, but only the rapid elimination of the female participants is presented as a natural indication of the way things just are. There is no recognition that their elimination will affect the assessment of what happens to dogs when granted what the gods imagine to be “human intelligence.”

Given the results, one might conclude that there is something about “human intelligence,” thus conceived, that is fatal to females. Agatha unwittingly chooses her painful death through her soft-hearted dedication to her mistress. Lydia’s temperament responds to her new awareness of time by retreating into a catatonic state (19). The male dogs rationalize their need to eliminate the other females from their evolving understanding of their new pack. After the elimination of the females, the experiment proceeds with the male-only sample until Prince’s redemption in death after suffering his Job-like afflictions is represented as a triumph for all mortals in a world governed by capricious chance. The role of gender in the text is thus both troubling and ambiguous. Although a reader such as myself may see this text as an implied critique of how scientific experiments have been conducted within humanist systems of science, I have not seen this element of the text mentioned in the reviews or in the single thesis devoted to it to date. Prince’s death is described in humanist terms, yet the fact that he is not a human implies a subtle extension of humanist values to include other earthly creatures, even encouraging the reader to “make kin” in Donna Haraway’s terms, with other species.

In this way, I see the book as staging an encounter between humanist and posthumanist thinking, and inviting further thought about assumed category distinctions, especially differences between male and female, and between gods, humans, and animals. It asks if human intelligence is singular or diverse, implying it can take many different forms: extending to encompass the creativity of Prince, the sagacity of Majnoun, the hierarchical orientation of Atticus, the cunning of Benjy (all males), and in a much more limited but importantly suggestive way, the emotional intelligence of Athena and Bella in their reciprocal partnership. In an unexplained switch from referring to human thinking to naming it primate thinking, the narrator notes: “Perhaps the most striking sign that ‘primate thinking’ could be useful, however, was in the relationship between Bella and Athena” (24). This idea is not developed, beyond the irony of the final exchange between the two: Athena says: “’’These males fight for any reason’;” and Bella replies: “’It has nothing to do with us’” (30).

Each manifestation of thinking exhibits both the strengths and weaknesses of traits that humans label as components of their intelligence. The novel’s focus on the development of a new language as the central aspect of “human intelligence” is only part of what constitutes the full range of the gift. However, along with self-consciousness, a capacity to question, and an awareness of the passing of the time, it is what drives the narrative forward and destroys the remnant community of twelve that choose to leave the clinic. In what follows, I will address how the novel presents the entanglements of intelligence, language, memory, community, mastery, and relationality.

I have already suggested that the text cannot be read as a simple allegory that uses animals to stand in for humans. Despite reviewers raising Orwell’s Animal Farm as an analogue, I argue the novel makes best sense when read within the tradition of Canadian animal stories as analyzed by Travis Mason. Mason argues that our interpretations of these stories benefit when formed through both literal and figurative reading. Even when gifted with the gods’ version of “human intelligence,” Alexis’s dogs are still first and foremost dogs, with their own dog language and understanding of the world, which does not disappear with the god’s gift, since they are allowed to retain their memories. The text requires readers to accept the fiction’s founding premise: that the gods have granted these dogs a gift of “human intelligence,” as they see it. That premise functions somewhat like what Darko Suvin, writing about science fiction, labels a novum, an intervention that enables readers to see their own world through a lens of cognitive estrangement. Everything in the text works to encourage the story’s plausibility, once the existence of the gods drinking and making a bet in Toronto is accepted.

Mason argues in a 2007 book chapter for reading Canadian animal stories through the emerging dialogues between postcolonial and ecocritical approaches. These days, more than a decade later, it seems helpful to bring insights from critical posthumanism into the discussion. The novel raises old questions in a new light. What is the nature of human intelligence? What distinguishes human from other forms of intelligence? Is human intelligence itself singular or multiple? Is this story reasserting conventional humanist values at a time when they are under critique by the theories just mentioned, or can it be read as a call to rethink humanist traditions along the lines called for by Edward Said in his Humanism and Democratic Criticism? I will work through the ways the novel raises these questions in what follows.

Greco-Roman gods start the action and meddle to keep it going but their Olympian distance, immortality, and absolute power mean that their fundamental difference from the world of humans and dogs remains their key feature. Humans are on the periphery but still powerfully present on the edges of the action. The dogs’ reflections on humans allow us to see ourselves from a disorienting perspective, in which we are not the centre of the world, not even for those animals closest to us, those judged to be “man’s best friend.” I have suggested that the selectivity of what the narrator chooses to report enables readers to form contradictory assessments of the story’s biases. For example, is the ultimate effect of the book to reinforce misogyny or to critique toxic masculinity? My students have developed persuasive arguments in support of both these assessments. Viewed from the dog’s point of view, humans do not come off well. The male humans in the book, when dealing with dogs, confuse intelligence with slavish obedience and the performance of demeaning tricks on command. Miguel (the human who rescues Majnoun after the pack has left him for dead) links it to the ability to memorize and recite a passage from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, whether or not it is understood. Only his wife Nira eventually seems open to the possibility of a dog’s intelligence that is both genuinely different and also equal. Although she and Majnoun have many misunderstandings, their relationship is genuinely reciprocal and grows into love. In asking what makes a dog a dog, and what makes humans act as they do, the novel asks indirectly about the nature of humanity and community. Accepting that dogs and humans are both social and mortal animals, it asks what distinguishes them. The answers the book suggests trouble dimensions of both the humanist and posthumanist answers one might expect.

Each dog puzzles to a greater or lesser extent over the question of dog identity and the value of belonging. Male/female hierarchies are viewed as natural by the dogs, so that when they observe humans, they see the same hierarchies. Yet in other respects, the dogs are individualized. Each of Prince’s fifteen oulipo poems incorporates the name of a different dog. Even the dogs who disappear or are killed almost immediately are given some individualization. Atticus, Benjy, Majnoun, and Prince can be assigned to type: the authoritarian, the schemer/survivalist, the intellectual, the poet. But each is also allowed to speak and act for himself with greater complexity than what a conventional moral fable might deem necessary. Sympathy is created even for the vengeful Atticus and the vain Benjy.

Among the dogs granted much attention, there are different views on questions about what it means to belong to the larger category of the dog, on the one hand, and to belong to this particular pack, granted human intelligence, on the other. Members of this pack quickly learn that other dogs now see them as generically different, and either attack or fear them as a result. Yet far from unifying their sense of cohesion as a pack, this differentiating feature further divides them, as they disagree about how to deal with their difference. The gods’ decision to leave the dogs their memories is the key to their dilemma. The dogs remember a time before their change, and as time passes, their memories turn nostalgic and risk blocking their ability to change and adapt. Only Prince is able to draw on his early memories as a source of happiness at his death.

It is assumed that dogs have their own language appropriate for communicating and expressing their sense of their dogginess prior to the god’s intervention. That prior language does not disappear but becomes overlaid by an imposed bilingualism in which human patterns of thought interfere with what is assumed to be a more affect-laden dog language of feeling and sensing. Dog language is characterized as more immediate, a medium of basic communication and a sense-based way of smelling, seeing, and hearing the world. Human language is portrayed as a language of rational thought and creative possibility—at least for the dogs. The transformed dogs in the text are bilingual in human thought and dog language. Two (Majnoun and Benjy) even add English to their repertoire.

I am arguing that by combining gods, humans, and animals in a single narrative, the novel sets itself up as a place where humanism and posthumanism collide. Conventional humanist hierarchies of power and value, with gods at the top, humans in the middle, and animals at the bottom, are questioned in some ways. The gods, although presented as more powerful, are depicted as being just as petty, jealous, irrational, and irresponsible as any human or dog in the story. Once allowed the ability to think and learn as humans do, the dogs challenge some of the borders that conventionally separate human from canine intelligence. Yet the book’s narration continually falls back upon those terms, vacillating between reinforcing and blurring those borders between the human and the canine.

The initial debate that starts the novel has Apollo presenting a posthuman view, arguing that “humans have no special merit, though they think themselves superior” (13). Hermes expresses a humanist vision, arguing that “the human way of creating and using symbols is more interesting than, say, the complex dancing done by bees” (14). Yet they agree that human intelligence is somehow special, and potentially a cause of unhappiness, whether it is viewed as “a difficult gift” (15) or “a difficult plague” (16). By crossing one form of species intelligence with another, they create what Atticus sees as a monstrosity, what Prince sees as an exciting opportunity, and what Majnoun sees as a reality that must be dealt with. Nira, the human who with her husband Miguel rescues Majnoun after he has been left for dead by his pack, is initially fearful of Majnoun’s hybridity, thinking he must be possessed, but slowly learns to respect his dignity and autonomy. Each remains a mystery to the other, yet their reciprocal respect grows into love.

The novel proceeds through a series of debates between positions taken by different dogs on how to deal with their new situation. In his whole-hearted embrace of the new consciousness, Prince feels “as if he had discovered a new way of seeing, an angle that made all that he had known strange and wonderful” (27). His linguistic play and poetry divide the dogs into those who “learned to suppress thinking” (27), such as Frick, Frack and Max; those who learn to live with it, such as Majnoun and Benjy; and Atticus, the dog most tormented by it. Atticus initially poses an important question, “how are we to live, now that we are strangers to our own kind?” (31). This is the question any modern community, and certainly any immigration-based community, must ask itself. It is a question our recognition of the Anthropocene is forcing on all humans. Atticus argues the answer is to “go back to the old ways of being” (31). Majnoun disagrees: “We have this new way. It has been given to us. Why should we not use it?” 31). Yet using it proves difficult in a world where humans have not evolved into a similar kind of awareness.

In this sense, Fifteen Dogs might be read in dialogue with the first question explored in Donna Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Haraway asks: “1) how might an ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness be learned from taking dog-human relationships seriously” (3). When the dogs converse and interact among themselves, they ask about what it means to be a dog, yet the very fact of their asking reminds them and their readers that they are no longer just dogs. Benjy suggests their choices are to be mimic humans or dogs performing as dogs. It is only when they are depicted as interacting with humans, that Haraway’s question becomes relevant. If the story of Majnoun and Nira seems to suggest the ethics of what Haraway terms “making kin,” then Benjy shows its limits.

Through the dilemma of dogs gifted with a puzzling change in their consciousness and their circumstances, Fifteen Dogs reflects allegorically on the resistance to change, the anti-intellectualism, and the desire for ideological purity that characterize many populist reactions to globalization today. Atticus has “a notion of what an ideal or pure dog might be: a creature without the flaws of thought” (95). In Atticus’s mind, purity of being and mastery are inextricably linked. Zeus approves. Despite the violence and suffering that Atticus’s obsession with what he has lost costs the other dogs and even himself, the narrative suggests that there is a certain nobility to his devotion to this lost cause and to what Alexis Shotwell, in the Anthropocene context, aptly terms “a purity politics of despair” (195).

In Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, Shotwell suggests an ethos humans could use “to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene: roughly, the moment that humans worry that we have lost a natural state of purity or decide that purity is something we ought to pursue and defend” (3). Although she is addressing an environmental concern with a lost purity of the natural world, such an ethos of purity also seems appropriate to Atticus’s elegy for the loss of canine purity experienced by his new dog community. And there are resonances of such feeling in the novel’s ecstatic conclusion. Throughout history, such obsessions with purity have functioned to validate various forms of group identity, usually taking recourse in nostalgia for a lost past or a fall from grace. For Atticus, it comes in the form of seeking to protect the purity of the dog, something he remembers yet feels he is losing as the new language takes hold. As Shotwell specifies, to be against purity, as she argues we should be, is “to be against the rhetorical or conceptual attempt to delineate and delimit the world into something separable, disentangled and homogenous” (15). To attempt to embrace purity instead of recognizing complexity and complicity is to misrecognize the way things are. One might argue, for example, that for many years, the fates of dogs and humans have been entwined. Fifteen Dogs recognizes these entanglements and shows that to seek such purity is a self-defeating endeavor, yet there is also an elegiac tone to the novel as a whole, which seems to lament the lost purity of a physical way of being in the world uncontaminated by self-consciousness and the awareness of time passing.

The novel also asks to what extent the drive to purity is linked to the drive for mastery. The gods are obsessed with mastery. The price for losing the wager is to serve as slave to the other god for a year. They struggle with the Fates over who has final mastery over the fates of mortals. Like the gods, the dogs are portrayed as dependent on hierarchy so that those who are dominant actually need those who are subordinate for the pack to function. This is portrayed as a biological and social need. When they purge themselves of the weakest members, the remaining dogs, eventually an all-male community, find their social cohesion weakened. The text argues that the desire to dominate is ingrained in these dogs: in Benjy, we are told it is “strong and instinctive and belonged to the unquellable depths of himself” (63-64). Even Majnoun assesses relations in this light. His most acrimonious disputes with Nira are about this matter. Yet the gift of human intelligence appears to free the dogs, at least potentially, from the need to dominate or be dominated. With Prince’s early invention of a word in the new language for human, “the dogs could now speak of the primates without speaking of mastery” (23). In other words, as Haraway suggests, and Alexis reinforces, there are other modes of relation possibly better suited to living in our world.

Julietta Singh locates the driving force of her book Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglement in the question: “What kind of subjects—and what kind of objects—can we be for ourselves and for others if we loosen the hold of mastery?” (94). Nira believes such loosening is possible. Majnoun is less sure, but his love and respect for Nira enables him to perform that loosening. Athena and Bella show how such reciprocity might work and are killed very quickly for the threat that others see in their cooperation. Prince is the dog who most successfully combines the best of canine and human ways of sensing and knowing the world. Significantly, he is also the only dog who does not see the world through the lens of mastery and who lives without a permanent master. He is the only dog not born in Toronto, depicted as already in exile from a prairie paradise and his first and only human master, Kim, before his second exile from the pack of transformed dogs. Unlike the other dogs, he moves from human to human, retaining his independence and taking equal pleasure from composing poetry in the new language and from the delights of his senses, until vindictive Apollo deprives him of these and he has only his thoughts and his poetry left. But that is enough for Prince. He is grateful that he was given this beautiful language, privileged to glimpse its depths, and hopeful that “it was a gift that could not be destroyed” (168). Feeling pleased, Hermes grants Prince a final gift. Hearing the voice he loved, “Prince’s soul was filled with joy” (171). As he bounds toward Kim, the narrative concludes with the assurance that “In his final moment on earth, Prince loved and knew that he was loved in return” (171). Here Prince’s devotion to creation is linked to his capacity for cross-species love, and the combination creates a happiness that has eluded all the other dogs, yet which despite its uniqueness redeems Hermes’ belief that such human intelligence, for all its costs, is indeed a gift.

Although the novel ends with Prince’s joy, it is preceded by Hermes’s meditation on the divide that separates mortal creatures from the immortal power of the gods: ”On the one hand, power; on the other, love” (170). From such a divine perspective, the shared mortality of humans and other animals delineates a border that cannot be crossed with mortal creatures on one side of the divide and gods on the other. Hermes’s thoughts, voiced by the narrator, muse: “Death was in every fibre of their existence. It was hidden in their languages and at the root of their civilizations. … It darkened their pleasures and lightened their despair” (170). This humanist meditation, in so much as it is inspired by the death of a dog, both implicitly critiques the exclusions of conventional humanism and extends its values to include the creativity and originality of a dog. Or does it? The answer depends on whether one sees Prince as an ordinary dog, as he sees himself; as an extraordinary hybrid of the human and the animal as a result of the gods’ experiment; or simply as a stand-in, an allegorical figure, for the human. I am arguing that while the text does make it possible for readers to choose between these options, the most satisfying choice is to refuse to choose among them.

Works Cited

Alexis, André. Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue. Toronto: Coach House, 2015.

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Planetocene, Cthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities. Vol. 6 2015. 159-65.

—. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003.

Mason, Travis V. “Lick Me, Bite Me, Hear Me, Write Me: Tracking Animals between Postcolonialism and Ecocriticism.” In Janice Fiamengo, ed. Other Selves: Animals in the Canadian Literary Imagination. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2007. 100-124.

Said, Edward. Humanism and Democratic Criticism: New York: Columbia UP, 2004.

Shotwell, Alexis. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.

Singh, Julietta. Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglement. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1979


Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota Series: An Alternate History of the Future

coverwilltoThis ten-minute paper introduces a speculative fiction series about a 25th century world in which humanity has succeeded in colonizing the Moon, holding the Olympics in Antarctica, and maintained global peace for three centuries but in which women have still not achieved equality.
This paper argues that Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, set in a future 25th century, is deeply invested in exploring what it means to write history and learn from its lessons. In showing how 18th century habits of thought, and even earlier texts such as Vergil’s Aeneid, continue to shape thinking in her imagined future, she takes a long view of historical change, a decision that seems consonant with contemporary global trends. In this respect, her approach contrasts with that of the historian-narrator of her series, Mycroft Canner, who writes an official history as it happens. This decision enables Palmer to zoom in and zoom out from close and longer views throughout the narrative, moving away from the middle distance perspective of a sixty-year range advocated by Sir Walter Scott. These texts are not alternative histories in the most usual sense. They do not imagine past events turning out otherwise. Instead, they imagine our future as if seen from an even more distant future, looking back—to address interlocutors from the past, both real, such as Thomas Hobbes, and fictional, and to address imagined readers from its own near and far future. This series is alternate history in the most basic sense of positing “‘an account of Earth […] as it might have become in consequence of some hypothetical alteration in history’ (Stableford, Wolfe, Langford)” (cited in Frost, p.28).
Like all speculative fiction, Palmer’s series asks “what if?” What if the late twenty-first century experiences a devastating recurrence of earlier centuries’ Church Wars, wars over transhumanist developments called the “Set-Set Wars,” and a rearrangement of governance systems that effectively abolishes the nation-state, achieving peace for three centuries, but still failing, in the 25th century, to achieve gender equity? What if certain problems that seem intractable, such as the unforeseen effects of the human impact on the environment are easily solved, while the social problems of humans living together in an even more thoroughly globalized world, continue? For someone like myself, who has worked in team projects addressing “Globalization and Autonomy” and “Building Global Democracy,’ this is an intriguing thought experiment.
In writing of the narrator using the plural pronouns “them” and “themself,” I will be following the prescribed custom of Palmer’s imagined 25th century in which gendered pronouns have been abolished as part of an unsuccessful attempt to achieve gender equity. Mycroft highlights the issue by employing the neutral “they” when reporting the conversations of others but insisting on gendered pronouns for describing actors in this history. But Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns fluctuates according to their estimate of the behavior of the person at the time. It is not determined by the sex of individual bodies. I will use it only when referring to characters in the fiction and not to people outside the text. It is a useful exercise in learning how difficult it is to escape using gendered pronouns for thinking and writing in our times.
The series aims to raise such questions at a time when American society seems increasingly polarized around gendered and racialized identifications, and when a misogynist agenda is being institutionalized, in part at the instigation and with the support of a resurgent fundamentalist form of Christianity and its allies within white supremacist movements. Global warming threatens yet remains officially denied. In Palmer’s imagined future, two of these looming problems have been miraculously solved. Technology has dealt with the environmental crisis and race as we understand it no longer functions as a divisive force. In a world where there is much more intermarriage across racialized lines, nation-states have been abolished, and religious discussions banned, racial tensions once dependent on colonial imaginaries, visible bodily difference, and notions of bodily purity now seem to have morphed in this series into controversies around the limits of cyborgian identities, in which human and machine are merged at an early age to create a new type of human, fully integrated with computers, called set sets. This society is still hurting from earlier Set Set Riots, which threaten to break out again on the instigation of Nurturists, as the series begins.
I argue that some of the energies of this series derive from the “political unconscious” of Palmer’s nation, the United States, at this contemporary moment in history, while other themes occupy the forefront of her attention. It seems unlikely we can turn so easily from the challenges of environment and race, yet Palmer’s focus elsewhere may address these indirectly. I am fascinated by her interest in alternate forms of citizenship and governance structures, and in the continuing disparity between apparent progress in technological development and the lack of progress in women’s rights and in attaining a stable peace.
The idea of the pre-emptive strike starts the events of her series in motion. Mycroft has committed horrific crimes in a failed effort to stop the beginning of a new global war. The plot turns on the revelation that the long peace has itself depended on a secret series of targeted assassinations designed to pre-emptively prevent war clouds from gathering. By the end of the third book, The Will to Battle, those efforts have failed. In this way, the series addresses the Global “War on Terror” and its justification of a doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, while also considering the disintegration of democracy into oligarchy and the dangerous cult of the strong leader. The series questions our present and how we got here while imagining alternate futures that try to deviate from the trajectory we seem to be on. Palmer’s future has both utopian and dystopian features that raise questions as much as they offer potential solutions. To further complicate matters, one of the new forms of citizenship available in this world is within the collectivity named the Utopians. They stand out from the other self-governance structures, called Hives, for their integrity, perfectionism, and dedication to Progress as well as their Borg-like integration. The first strike of the warmongers is against them.
Significant imagination has gone into the world building of a future that is at least on the surface quite different from our own. At the same time, the series is engaged in a philosophical discussion that is as old as humankind. In the “Author’s Note and Acknowledgements” at the end of Too Like the Lightning, Palmer writes of her desire “to add my voice “to the Great Conversation, to reply to Diderot, Voltaire, Osamu Tezuka, and Alfred Bester, so people would read my books and think new things, and make new things from those thoughts, my little contribution to the path which flows from Gilgamesh and Homer to the stars” (431). Palmer’s work as a historian of the Renaissance further shapes her fiction.. In her academic article, “On Progress and Historical Change” (2017), Palmer asks several questions that resonate with the themes of the Terra Ignota series. She asks: “Is progress inevitable? Is it natural? Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place?” She adds “Many people are reexamining these kinds of questions in the wake of the political events of 2016” (319). By asking similar questions of her 25th c world, she provides her readers with a longer temporal scale in which to situate them, and by bringing in many references to the past, particularly the Enlightenment but also Roman times, she lengthens that scale even further.
Palmer’s article continues: “There is a strange doubleness to experiencing a historic moment while being a historian oneself” (319). This is the position in which she places Mycroft Canner. They are living through events as they attempt to record them for posterity, and see them through a triple lens: that of their knowledge of the past; their present experience as a participant and a watcher; and their anticipation of how the future will judge them and their times. As a historian interested in “the how of history’s dynamism rather than the what next” (italics in original: 320) as she puts it, Palmer seems to have written her fiction to demonstrate her belief that “history is a lesson in complexity and predictability” (320). These are books you need to read more than once. The first reading immerses one in the complexity. Only with hindsight can one begin to piece together some of what might have been predicted or at least what might seem predictable now. In that way, perhaps, the series makes all its interested readers into a type of historian, trying to make sense of history’s dynamism and learning to ask some of the questions that historians ask.
Palmer’s article is organized around the challenge of balancing “Great Forces” history against “Human Agency” history to produce what she advances as a “hybrid model of history” (334), a model that well describes the complex balance between what she calls “zooming in” and “zooming out” that Mycroft’s narration also achieves, as they move between a perspective shaped by centuries of human history to the intimate struggles of the moment. Palmer’s article may also explain why she has Mycroft choose to write in an eighteenth-century style. Palmer argues “We’ve only been systematically pursuing progress since the seventeenth century, and we didn’t really come to understand that it could have negative consequences until the end of the eighteenth….One hundred and fifty years is not a very long time to study something, not when the system we’re trying to understand is so complex” (336). She concludes the article in an effort to achieve balance between the “slowness of social progress” (336), which is painful, and the hope that arises from the fact that some things do seem to have improved.
Specifically, she asks why, when technology has advanced so quickly, and “Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Citizen in 1791, do we still not have equal pay?” 337). At the same time, she consoles herself that “History gives us infinite examples of human actions that genuinely did divert the flood, protect things, achieve things, even improve things, if not everything they aimed at” (337). This wide lens panoptic scale enables her to balance critique with hope, while remaining unreconciled to the slow progress of women’s rights.
Palmer positions her series on the cusp of these two observations. Gendered stereotypes have survived even in this future society that believes it has achieved gender equality. Mycroft attributes this failure to the continuing power of eighteenth century imaginaries. Mycroft argues in the opening “Prayer to the Reader,” that “since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolutions, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described” (13). The mix of anachronism and futurism (eighteenth-century style and futurist setting) gives these books their distinctive character. Through Mycroft’s narration, they grapple with questions of philosophy, Providence, faith and politics, choice and democracy, in ways that remain haunted by history even as they resonate with the debates of our global terror times.
Nation-states are no longer the dominant forms of international governance in this new 300 year-old system and while a few survive in residual form, the United States is not one of them. Yet it is arguably the strongest presence. Seen as the inspiration for the founding of this new global federation, the 1776 US Declaration of Independence is echoed in the 2131 speech that launched the new order, and which is now repeated on every “Renunciation Day” since. There is one key difference between the opening words of the two speeches. Whereas the original speech refers to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” the Renunciation speech omits reference to “Nature’s God.” Both the nation-state and its origin in a divinely ordained sovereignty are thereby renounced. Mycroft explains: “What you see here is the beginning of the silence”. Referring to 2131, Mycroft notes: “As the first bombs of the Church War rain down, those who consider themselves neutral are now afraid to mention the divinity” (Chapter 8). The speech, futurist to us, historical to Mycroft, is delivered by a new Founder with an old name, Thomas Carlyle. Founder Carlyle claims: “Americans, America is no longer your nation. Your nation is the friends who live and work with you, in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, all of the Americas, and all the other corners of this Earth.” This cosmopolitan vision invokes a world in which citizenship is self-chosen according to vocation and earned by the passing of a Maturity Exam, the terms of which are set by each Hive individually.
As the series unfolds, this remarkable civilization seems consumed by “the will to battle,” in part because it has never dealt with the religious, violent, and sexual desires it has repressed nor with the unquestioned belief in progress and free choice that it has internalized. I have argued that this series asks with an historian’s eye how the contemporary US got to its current state. It asks important moral and political questions that have emerged more urgently since the US declaration of a “War on Terror.” Can pre-emptive strikes work or do they cause further violence while merely delaying, perhaps, the inevitable? Can the death of a few can ever justify the survival of the many? How can a democratic system designed to employ checks and balances to maintain the peace be thrown out of balance, and how may democratic forms of participation restore it? Or will a strong man figure be needed?

Works Cited
Barad, Karen. “Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings.” GLQ 21. 2-3 (2015): 387-422.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1081
Modood, Tariq. “Is There a Crisis of ‘Postsecularism’ in Western Europe? In Braidotti, Rosi, Bolette Blaagaard, Tobijn de Graauw & Eva Midden, eds. Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 14-34.
Palmer, Ada. “On Progress and Historical Change.” Know: A Journal of the Formation of Knowledge. Vol.1. no. 2 (2017). 319-337.
Palmer, Ada. Too Like the Lightning. Terra Ignota, Book 1. New York: TOR. 2016.
—. Seven Surrenders. Terra Ignota. Book 2. New York: TOR, 2017.
—. The Will to Battle. Terra Ignota. Book 3. New York: TOR, 2017.
—. Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014.

The research for this paper was supported, in part, by funding from the Canada Research Chairs programme.

Disruptive Outsiders and Alien Gods in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota Series

Today I want to share with you my excitement about this extraordinary futurist fiction by US historian Ada Palmer. Three of a planned four volumes have now been published: Too Like the Lightning (2016), Seven Surrenders (2017), and The Will to Battle (2017). What can this speculative fiction tell us about the world today and our heritage from the past? These novels offer insight into contemporary crises of democracy, the rise of plutocracy, the limits of secularism, embodied and gendered dynamics, the power of pronouns, the appeal of war,  the writing of history, the reading of texts, and political systems of the future, and they do so in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. The mix of anachronism and futurist world-building, learned allusion, multilingual interactions, jarring shifts in the use of gendered and gender-neutral pronouns, and the driving force of multiple mysteries to be solved disrupt expectation in pleasing ways. I will speak more about some of these elements in a longer paper at the Alternate Histories conference on March 8.

Palmer herself has identified the difficulty of untangling utopia from dystopia and the question of whether the ends can ever justify the means as among her central interests, especially in relation to two contemporary issues: how to achieve gender equality and how to negotiate  religious disputes. Today I draw attention to the ways these themes are addressed through the novel’s narratorial style and one element of its surprising plot.

When you open the first book, the entire first page is dedicated to permissions and censors’ content ratings as if it were an authentic eighteenth-century text. On the next page is the epigraph from Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master: “Ah, my poor Jacques! You are a philosopher. But don’t worry: I’ll protect you.”  “A Prayer to the Reader” follows: “You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe,” before adding that “since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolutions, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described.”  “It will be hard at first” but “you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are” (13). This narrator is Mycroft Canner, a psychologically unstable mass murderer who has been transformed by his encounters with an alien god and a magical boy. Because most people initially believe he has been executed by the state, he has become the ultimate insider: one granted access to elite secrets and trusted with sensitive assignments, including translating for his god who understands most languages but prefers to speak in Latin.

This god, whom Mycroft compares to Voltaire’s first space traveler, Micromegas, and the boy Bridger, through their uncanny powers, reveal the fragile underpinnings of a global peace based upon forbidden religious proselytizing and forbidden acknowledgements of sexual difference. Mycroft writes of his relation to Bridger: “I am the window through which you watch the coming storm. He is the lightning” (212, TLL chapter 17). Karen Barad calls lightning a “reaching toward, an arcing dis/juncture, a striking response to charged yearnings” (387). This is the boy for Mycroft. The Micromegas-like god has seven names deriving from his relations to each of the elite groups who run this world, but for convenience is often named J.E.D,D. Mason. He claims to be an alien god born into a human body to a Madame who runs an exclusive and officially non-existent brothel, inspired in part by the Marquis de Sade. Described as dressing all in black like Robespierre, this alien and forbidding figure functions as an increasingly polarizing force for attracting or repelling opposing factions: those who believe his death alone can save the peace and those who believe his leadership alone can enable the emergence of a new order.

Mycroft believes in Him, and so uses the capitalized, masculine pronoun when describing Him. In Book Three, Mycroft insists, “There are two Gods, reader, at least, He Who Conceived This Universe, and He Who Visits from Another, just as Infinite and just as Real. We humans are the letters of a message our Creator wrote to make first contact with His Divine Peer.” Humans, Mycroft concludes are “the alphabet” through which the letter of this Universe’s God was written, and the alien God is the designated reader of our human story. In such a way, Mycroft continues the kind of discussions about Providence that characterize the Diderot text from which he takes his epigraph.

Two further supposedly eighteenth-century features mark Mycroft’s style and each becomes increasingly more complex as the stories unfold. Gendered pronouns are forbidden in his time. Use of the plural pronoun ‘they’ to refer to all individuals is both customary and enforced. But Mycroft insists on using the obsolete ‘he’, ‘she’ and even ‘it’ to refer to individuals and he does so according to his own idiosyncratic ideas of their behavior at the time and not according to any notion of a stable bodily correspondence. Since the same character may be “he” or “she” at various times in the text, readers are forced to consider their own assumptions as Mycroft shifts. However, he is not always consistent. Some characters appear to have more stable gendered identities, at least in Mycroft’s eyes. Furthermore, when recording dialogue, he remains true to the speech of his time, in which all pronoun references are to “they.” Confusing at first, this strategy gradually accustoms one to see the use of “they” for individuals as the norm, and to see Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns as further evidence of his supposedly principled noncomformity, or at least his defiance of societal norms.  The second narratorial device is the inclusion of direct addresses to the reader, whom Mycroft addresses as Thee and Thou at first, but which gradually become more personal and more frequent, so that Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan, and Apollo Mojave, the mentor he murdered, increasingly intrude as imagined interlocutors, along with other unnamed Readers from the future.

The series title, terra ignota, refers to the unknown territory of ignorance where different legal systems clash and have not yet been accounted for. Since governance is no longer tethered to a geopolitical state, each collective operates according to its own laws, but within a world in which multiple collectivities co-exist and interact within an asymmetrical and still evolving federal system. Because few precedents exist for how to settle such non-geographically and non-state-based cross-border disputes, Mycroft writes: “Arm thyself well for this trial, young polylaw; here, at the law’s wild borders, there be dragons” (TWtB, ch 2). These wild borders, unmapped, untested, and shifting, vastly complicate our contemporary understandings of our conference theme: outsiders and aliens.

Works Cited and Consulted

Barad, Karen. “Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings.” GLQ 21. 2-3 (2015): 387-422.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1081


Image Luthar Pokrant Shaman, Jack O’Hearts and My Lady 1977 detail from the collection of St. John’s College

Canada in the World Today: Decolonizing Stories


crossroads I will start by acknowledging that we are meeting today on Treaty One territory, at the crossroads of the Anishinabe, Métis, Cree, Dakota and the Oji Cree nations. This ceremonial acknowledgement constitutes an important step toward decolonizing our imaginations, rethinking our local and national history in its colonial, capitalist, and global interactions, and learning to respect the value of story, and of ceremonial performance, not just within indigenous knowledge systems, although that remains central, but also for the enrichment it can bring to the lives of each of us who find ourselves at this crossroads today.  The role of a national literature within such contexts is contested. Today, I will introduce some of the discussions that currently circulate around the questions of Canada in the world today and ideas about decolonization. This talk focusses on English-Canada from an Anglophone perspective and is designed for an English-Canadian audience. I recognize that I cannot do justice to the full history of Canada or of Canadian literature in both official languages nor to the rich traditions of writing in French from Quebec, Acadia, and francophone Ontario and the West.

Can some stories decolonize? If they can, how do they do it? Should other stories be decolonized? What might that mean? Canada, as an official nation-state, began its history 150 years ago as a colony of the United Kingdom. How has it moved from colony to nation? What kind of a nation have our writers shown us? What kinds of futures do they imagine for us?

As a way of introducing this lecture series, and my talk today, I will loosely organize the talk around the four questions that President Barnard suggested that our university community consider this year. He borrowed these from Senator Murray Sinclair. These are:

Where do I come from?

Where are am I going?

Why am I here?

Who am I?

These identity-based questions are different from the questions we ask of a literary text. However, we can ask somewhat related questions about literature. We can ask about the traditions out of which it emerged (where do I come from?); about the meanings we derive from it (where is it going?); about its apparent purpose (why is it here?); and about how to categorize it generically (what is it?).  We also ask: what does it mean, in many different contexts, to different audiences of readers? How does it make its meanings; how does it work? Who is its intended audience? To this last question, few authors would claim to write for a national audience alone. These are all valid questions to help us understand a text but they may not be the most interesting questions we can ask about literature. That’s because literature is above all relational. It is less about “I” than about “we.” Each literary text calls its readers into relational being with the world it creates. Together, stories and readers engage in world-making practices, which can operate on many scales from the local, through the national, to the supra-regional, and the global. The two concepts of “I” and “we” are entangled, interdependent, and co-constructing. To focus on one at the expense of the other may be to miss much of the picture. Literature is co-created by writer and reader in dialogue with their respective communities and with the fictions the texts enact and the worlds they create. What unites literature and ideas about the nation is the vitality of the imagination as a force in social life.

At one time, people thought of the imagination as secondary to actual, real life; as an imitation or a reflection of the material world; or at best, as something invented that could illuminate real life in ways that helped us understand it better. The idea that what is imagined is by definition not real still holds some sway. At the same time, however, many academics, not just in literary studies, now think of the imagination as more powerful than that, as carrying a force and vitality of its own that interacts with material circumstances in often unpredictable ways to shape how people make sense of their world. The role of the imagination in social life is what makes nationalism so powerful. The state without the nation attracts the loyalty of very few, but when a state can call on a nation to inspire loyalty and even love, then the combination of nation and state is very powerful. As Benedict Anderson explains, the nation is an imagined community. Looking at the nineteenth century origins of the nation, he sees media such as the national newspaper and the novel interacting with institutions such as the census, the map, and the museum to make the imagined nation a material reality, a materialized community, and something that people would be willing to actually die for. New media may complicate his analysis, but if anything, they seem to be reinforcing the important role of the imagination in shaping social life, both its unexamined assumptions and its articulated views.  Nation-building exercises such as CBC’s Canada Reads build on Anderson’s analysis when they try to identify one book that every Canadian should read, as if national cohesion can be strengthened by enabling everyone to share in the same imagined vision of a particular text.  In similar ways, literature can enable a settler and immigrant population to make claims to the land they have chosen to make their own.

Critic Margery Fee in her study, Literary Land Claims: The “Indian Land Question” from Pontiac’s War to Attawapiskat, revisits the history of Canadian literature from 1812 to the present, to document the ways in which Canadian identity and Canadian land claims were justified through literary texts. As she explains, the ideas about Canadian nationalism promoted by writers such as Margaret Atwood and Northrop Frye are deeply infused with Romantic ideas that link the nation to nature and to the landscape in particular. Those ideas still claim much of the popular imagination and official representations of the nation, yet they have always been challenged by very different indigenous ideas about the land and the relations of human beings to it. Those Indigenous views are now prompting scholars such as Fee to re-read Canadian literature for more respectful ways of engaging First Peoples and their world views. I assigned Leanne Simpson so we could think about some of these issues in more detail today. Fee suggests that “The decolonization of Canadian literature will require a new genre of academic writing,” possibly linked more closely to indigenous “story theory” (223) because in our time, “Story is being retheorizaed and the land restoried” (224). Simpson’s text shows us how an Anishnaabeg perspective performs this rethorizing and restorying through reclaiming the language in all its nuances. For Fee, as for Simpson, ultimately, “The issue is how to share land” (226). The two texts I suggested we read for today, Lawrence Hill’s Some Great Thing and Leanne Simpson’s Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence, address that question of sharing and reciprocity from multiple angles.

With this introduction to the scope of my talk in mind, then, I turn in the next sections to introduce myself, my research, and the perspectives I bring to the study of Canadian literature, global contexts, and ideas about decolonizing stories. Throughout the talk, I will problematize what is meant by Canada, by the world, and by decolonization, set in dialogue with these two texts. I will conclude with some questions we could consider together as we move into our formal discussion period. But please note that I am happy to stop at any time to address questions you might want to raise during the course of my prepared talk. Interruptions can be productive, so please don’t hesitate.

In suggesting that Canadians begin with the question, “Who am I?”, Senator Sinclair and President Barnard break with Canadian literary tradition as established by Northrop Frye, who argued that Canadians are more engaged with the question of “Where is here?” than they are with “Who am I?” Earlier in my career, I was impatient with this question, arguing we should ask instead “what we are doing here?” “How will we imagine our future in this place?”  But now, I see the complexity and importance of Frye’s question and the urgency of addressing it first. In fact, Fee’s book starts with Frye’s question. Many of Canada’s indigenous people might argue, with Simpson, that the two questions are deeply entangled, to the extent that land is identity. To understand our country and its literature, we need to start with where we are. I have taught Canadian literature in different parts of the country—in Winnipeg, Toronto, Vancouver, Kitimat, Ottawa, Guelph, and London, Ontario. From each location, the country and its literature looks different and is taught in different configurations.

I began this talk by referring to Winnipeg specifically, and Canada more generally, as a crossroads where many people and cultures meet. This has been true historically, and remains even more the case as globalization ensures greater mobility of ideas, people, and goods, both within and across the borders of the nation-state. With Brexit and Trump, there are efforts to close borders against people, and in the case of the US, against goods and ideas as well, but both the UK and the US are now finding how complex it is to try to cut off connections in our interconnected world. I hold a Canada Research Chair in Globalization and Cultural Studies, which is enabling me to study these criss-crossing relations across both literal and figurative borders. What people often fail to realize, however, is how long such globalizing processes have been in effect. Literary scholars in particular are quick to point out the long history of such interactions. When we study the history of literary cultures globally, we learn that people have been travelling and trading since the beginning of our civilizations. Despite the difficulty of travel in earlier times, the mobility of people in earlier centuries is often astonishing to those of us, like myself, who find air travel challenging enough. We know that officials of the British Empire travelled extensively for their work, moving from Australia to the West Indies to India, for example; and we know too that traders, soldiers, sailors, and many other workers, and even recreational travellers, were almost equally mobile.

I have chosen the image of the crossroads to indicate the intersecting lines and entanglements that characterize human history and the history of our own nation as we are coming to understand it today. At the time of Confederation, Canada was understood as an English-dominant colonial state with a significant French fact. Indigenous priority was recognized, and recognized explicitly in the earlier Royal Proclamation of 1763, but was nonetheless downplayed and diverted into the signing of numbered treaties until recent years.  As we now know from the diligent work of the TRC Commission, the Indian Residential Schools were deliberately set up for the purpose of a cultural genocide project, “to kill the Indian in the child.” As a nation, we are only beginning to deal with that legacy and we have a growing number of novels, poems, and autobiographies to help Canadians understand the full dimensions of that history. The genre of the residential school text now holds a recognized place in our literature.

Many of the recognized features of the modern nation-state came late to Canada. Canadian citizenship was not established until 1947. Before that, residents were British subjects. Canada adopted its own flag in 1965.  Canada patriated the Constitution in 1982.  Official bilingualism and biculturalism came relatively late, with the Official Languages Act passed in 1969. Official multiculturalism came in 1988. Many of you may remember those nation-defining moments.

More recently still, Canadians are coming to recognize the wrongs done to indigenous peoples through a history of colonialism represented by the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop that followed their closures. After the release of the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating the residential schools and its many recommendations for redress and reconciliation, the country is on the cusp of learning more about the cultures that the schools sought to eradicate and some of us are seeking answers in our Canadian literary traditions. The national self-image is shifting yet again to recognize Canada as the result of founding partnerships between English, French, and indigenous peoples, however unequal such partnerships were in practice.  In light of these shifts in consciousness, John Ralston Saul revisits Canadian history to argue that Canada has in fact always been a Metis nation. This is a well-meaning revision but it carries problems of its own, especially if it encourages glossing over many of the difficult facts in our history and the very real differences between the cultural views of the many different people now inhabiting this country.

Given this history, what do we mean when we commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday? What is the Canada for which this date can mark a celebration? We know that in 1867, Manitoba was not even part of what constituted Canada at that time. Part of what is now Manitoba entered Confederation in 1870. Yet, we can accept this symbolic date as the beginning of something new. At the same time, Canadian literature as a discipline does not restrict itself to literature written after 1867. Stories and writing long preceded the establishment of the state. When the Canadian state finally became a nation, pulling together different groups of people into a common sense of identity and purpose, is even harder to determine. For certain parts of the country, regionalism may remain a more potent focus of identity. For others, the Quebec nation or their particular First Nation, may remain the first point of identification within the federation of the Canadian nation-state. Part of Canada’s identity as a nation is its ability to accommodate these other nations within its federation.  Literature is entangled with all these nations, and we can think of literature and the nation as co-constructing one another. At the same time, literature is not restricted by the borders of the nation-state. Canadian literature can be set anywhere in the world and it finds its readers everywhere. We may argue that Canadian literature is anything written by a Canadian or more nebulously, that wherever it is set, it is both shaped by and shapes a Canadian sensibility or perspective on the world, however hard those are to pin down in reality.  Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in what appears to be the United States of the future, and many Americans assume this is an American text, but we Canadians claim the book as ours and there are good reasons for thinking that it presents a Canadian-based view of the world and gender critique.

Scholars look to the written accounts of early explorers and creative writers and to indigenous oral narratives for insight into early, pre-Confederation encounters and how they were perceived at the time. Contemporary creative writers continue to revisit these earlier stories to discover new insights into the past. Rudy Wiebe’s A Discovery of Strangers, for example, incorporates earlier explorer journals of the doomed Franklin expedition into a rich re-imagining of how indigenous peoples and their visitors understood the land, their relations to it and to each other, remaking their encounters into an ecocritical parable for our times. In The Man From the Creeks, Robert Kroetsch (who lived here in Winnipeg for many years) imagines a novelistic backstory to Robert Service’s famous poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Kroetsch brings late twentieth century understandings of gender into dialogue with the nineteenth century Gold Rush story dramatized in the poem. Creative writers such as George Elliott Clarke have published anthologies and critical studies of black Maritime writing going back to the 17th century.  In a similar effort, Karina Vernon, a critic at the University of Toronto, has compiled an anthology of black writing going back to earlier times from the Canadian prairies. Both authors employ an expanded definition of literature to include sermons, political speeches, diaries, and even pioneer cook books. Similar anthologies may be found for many other immigrant communities of long and more recent standing. Such work documents a long, multicultural history of people living, interacting, and writing in this country before Confederation and certainly before the official launch of a federal multicultural policy. Our literature is constantly revisiting and rethinking the meanings of our past as a set of interlinked communities sharing in this land.

So the historical reality and the rich symbolism of the crossroads resonates deeply within the materials I study. The crossroads, the horizontal meeting place of roads from many places and the vertical meeting place of earth and sky in Vodun ceremony, symbolizes the catastrophe and new beginning that 1492 brought to the Americas, bringing indigenous imaginaries into dialogue with Christian and African spiritual systems, and enabling potentially happier ways of imagining how to live together in our differences in the future. Nalo Hopkinson’s speculative fiction, Brown Girl in the Ring, is an exciting example of how such symbolic systems may be grounded in the physical architecture of contemporary Toronto in an imagined futuristic society, which has lost its way but can be saved from a dystopian future by remembering and renovating spiritual traditions of the past, both those indigenous to this place and imported from abroad. As such texts teach us, in thinking through the crossroads, we must not shirk the difficult forms of knowledge that come from a history of colonial and capitalist expansionist violence. But we can work through that violence through stories that imagine worlds beyond their reach.

So today I want to think about crossroads, stories, and decolonization. They are the routes through which I can share my research with you, and they come together in the ceremonial acknowledgement of our own Red River Valley crossroads, with which I began this talk. This acknowledgement is a first step toward imagining the goal of decolonization. If we can take the time to listen to these words and learn from the respect and reciprocity they enact, then we can see that these words perform a story about this place and our history in the place that differs from the older stories of explorers, pioneers, and settlers. I have heard jaded reactions to the performance of similar acknowledgements of aboriginal priority in Australia where the initial promise of decolonizing initiatives implicit in that acknowledgement was later betrayed. The words will seem empty unless they lead to other, more difficult changes. Still, I value them as a beginning for how we Canadians can start revisiting the stories of our past and imagining a different story together.

From this perspective, the 150 year anniversary of Canada’s official beginning as a recognized nation-state within an international system can seem somewhat arbitrary. The land designated Canada pre-existed Confederation; so did the people. What we inherit by living here has a much longer history and a longer record, in writing and in oral tradition. We need to remember that this is not the only possible beginning, while also recognizing the genuine achievements and serious errors made since 1867. This date does not mark an end to colonialism but perhaps it can mark a turn toward decolonization.

In The Truth About Stories, Thomas King claims that “the truth about stories is that’s all we are” (2). He asks what kind of world we create with the stories we tell; what kind of world we might have if we take responsibility for the stories we tell;  and he asks where we would be if we can learn to listen to others’ stories, and through that listening, begin to question the tyranny of the single story.  J. Edward Chamberlin, in his critical mediation on stories from around the world, told from his Canada-based perspective, in a book called, If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?, takes his title from the indigenous challenge issued to British settler/colonials in Canada who claimed this land by over-riding the claims of its original inhabitants, Chamberlin stresses the world-making power of stories this way. He writes: “In many ways, home is an image for the power of stories. With both, we need to live in them if they are to take hold, and we need to stand back from them if we are to understand their power” (77). King and Chamberlin write for general audiences out of their research-based knowledges, employing methods of academic work in literary studies, which combine deep intimacy and simple language with critical reflection. Letting go of oneself to inhabit another’s world, in humility, and respect, without appropriation, and also standing back to contemplate how that experience has changed us.  In her long poem, Inventory, Dionne Brand describes this critical receptivity as the task of the poet in global times. Confronted by the horror of the daily news, her witnessing speaker takes a visceral inventory, explaining:  “there are atomic openings in my chest / to hold the wounded’ (100). Poetry is not a helpless witnessing; it performs its own engagements and problematizes what is too often taken for granted.

I try to follow that lead. As a Canadianist, I ask what it means to make your home at the crossroads of cultures. As a student of decolonization across the old British empire, I know that all cultures are formed at the crossroads but some places strategically forget those origins, and genocides can be born from denying them. I see what King is getting at when he says that stories are all we are. The stories we tell, and the names we choose to give things and experiences matter. But I think we also need to pay attention to how some stories are heard and others are not; why some stories do not find readers or listeners and other stories do. All stories, written or oral, require validation, repetition, negotiation, and interpretation through institutional structures, whether those be the listening contexts authorized for performing and receiving indigenous oral stories or the publication, distribution, and reception networks set up for written texts. A prairie classic such as Sinclair Ross’s novel As For Me and My House sold fewer than 50 copies on its first appearance. It is the institutions of Canadian literary studies and the university study of national literatures that have enabled this text to survive and eventually find the readers it deserves. As I ponder the recent Canada Reads experience, I think we are still struggling with how to hear certain stories.

Stories are elusive and changeable.  They are not things; they are processes arising from relations. I study stories, and I tell stories about stories, and the ultimate goal of my research is to advance understanding of the power of stories—for good and for ill. Some stories need to be decolonized. Other stories need to be heard. Stories need to be refreshed, recreated in dialogue with their times. We can learn from the so-called creative genres of story, from theatre, poetry, fiction, film, and video games, but we also need to attend more carefully to stories that deny they are stories: stories that claim to be merely the facts and what everybody already knows. Many of the common sense stories about Canada need to be rethought, which is why come commentators resist the celebratory nature of this year’s approach to our past. During the Australian centennial celebrations of the arrival of the first fleet, many indigenous people and their supporters coined the phrase, “What’s there to celebrate in 88?” For 2017, in similar rhyming fashion, we might ask: “2017? What does it mean?” We don’t yet know the answer to this question. What will we make it mean for our future?

Literary texts ask us to confront such questions. How are meanings made? Values negotiated? How can the imagination be freed from what Blake called the “mind-forged manacles” that lock us into accepting an unfair world? The answers will be specific to each time and place, but there may be elements they share with places elsewhere. These are cross-disciplinary questions that seem particularly acute in a settler-colonial immigrant society such as Canada.

Dionne Brand provides one answer to Frye’s question, Where is here? For Brand, ‘Poetry is here, just here. Something wrestling with how we live, something dangerous, something honest’ (“On Poetry”:183). For many indigenous peoples, “here,” is called Turtle Island. Turtle Island creates a strong visual image, referring to an origin story that links this place to other peoples and stories within the ocean of stories, and to the ecosystem of knowledges that feeds that ocean. That name, “Turtle Island,” recognizes other histories and other origin stories, beyond those told about European Discovery, Conquest, or Development. Turtle Island gives life to Thomas King’s latest novel, The Back of the Turtle. King implies that all of us live on the back of the turtle, in forms of relation and reciprocity whether recognized or not, with other living beings, even those we consider to be inert or non-sentient. For King, this becomes another way of describing our home, and the novel tells of how badly our civilization is treating that home today.  Leanne Simpson’s story- theories in Dancing on our Turtle’s Back, similarly embrace that founding story to launch an enquiry into the language and stories of her people, which might serve as a resource for cultural resurgence.

Other origin stories from other peoples and places shape local stories of belonging that have been similarly adapted to explain national and global interconnectedness in current times.  I think here of Bill Reid’s famous sculptures, “The Raven and the First Men,” and Reid’s “Spirit of Haida Gwaii,” which political scientist James Tully used as the cover and animating metaphor for his influential book from 1995, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity. For Tully, the national boat holds a diversity of occupants. For globalization and climate change theorists, that boat becomes an image for precarious survival on the planet itself. As in the story of Noah’s Ark, the boat can function as either an inclusive or exclusive vision of community, putting animals and humans in the same boat but with the humans on the upper deck and the animals below, as in Timothy Findley’s novel, Not Wanted on the Voyage, and also excluding others from any participation in the voyage at all.

For Tomson Highway, ancient Greek, European Christian, and Cree cosmologies are all mythologies that shape understanding of the world through story-telling. I prefer, however, to follow Sto:lo author Lee Maracle, in describing the stories that embody these systems as theories, rather than myths, in order to stress their legitimacy as knowledge-producing systems. To attend seriously to these story-theories can take us beyond the limitations of “superpower parochialism” (35)—the wonderful term Rob Nixon uses in his book, Slow Violence: The Environmentalism of the Poor, and beyond what Vandana Shiva and Gayatri Spivak call a “monoculture of the mind.” These terms question the assumption that Western knowledge systems alone can claim to be universal, confining other forms of knowledge to the merely local. To “decolonize the mind” (Ngugi), scholars will need to deparochialize research away from this “superpower parochialism” that ignores the wisdom generated beyond the limits of its imagination. For these reasons, I welcome the questions the University of Manitoba is beginning to ask about what it might mean to decolonize the university. This is a challenging task and there will be disagreements about what decolonization could mean, how best it might be achieved, and how we will know when the decolonization process has achieved its goals. In my view, decolonization is not the same thing as indigenization. Both projects may be necessary; they are related; but they are not identical.

Part of the difference may be illustrated by thinking about Senator Sinclair and President Barnard’s first question: “Where do I come from?” When asked of another, “where do you come from?”, the question takes on new resonances depending on the context in which it is asked. It is the first question that indigenous peoples ask when they meet someone new. It is part of their protocol for politeness. Yet when white Canadians ask this question of racialized Canadians, it can cause hurt and resentment. It seems to imply that they are not really Canadians or don’t really belong. These are perceived as “loaded questions for people of colour born or raised in Canada” (Palmer v). Underlining this point, Hazelle Palmer calls her anthology of texts addressing the complexities of this question, “…but where are you really from?” Stories of Identity and Assimilation in Canada. The humour and the hurt attached to this question is well dramatized in the early scenes of Lawrence Hill’s Some Great Thing. After a Prologue introducing the hopes the protagonist’s railroad porter father holds for his new-born son in 1957, the novel proper opens in 1983 with the newsroom speculating about what his unusual name, Mahatma Lennox Grafton, might say about who he is and where he is from. They settle on Pakistani (a comic choice in itself given that Mahatma is named for Gandhi, a Hindu, and Pakistan is an officially Muslim nation). When the African-descendent Canadian, Mahatma, arrives, he is put through the usual routine that so many racialized Canadian writers rehearse in their texts: “’where are you from, anyway?’ Mahatma tried not to stiffen… “Winnipeg. The Wolseley area.” Ben frowned. “Yes, but your nationality?” “Canadian.” “Yes, but you know. Where were you from? Before that?” “Before that?” … “You know. Your origins.” (10). “Origins,” Mahatma repeated … “I originated in Winnipeg. Misericordia Hospital.” (11). In Part Two, another reporter asks him the same question, and the reader is told that “Mahatma fielded this question ten times a week” (50).  A few pages later, it happens again, with two new twists, shifting it from its racialized focus on black Canadians to stereotypes of Winnipeg in the rest of Canada: “Winnipeg, he’d tell them. Ah, Winnipeg—that explains it, they’d say” (63). In such contexts, to ask another person the question, “where are you from,” is not an innocent question

Yet it is a question we can all ask ourselves and Hill and Simpson each ask it in different ways. Hill, through a set of loosely connected characters from different backgrounds, and Simpson through recounting her own efforts to learn her language and community stories from the elders. When I taught Hill’s novel a few years ago, different students in the class identified with different characters in the text, partly because of their own life experiences. When I taught Simpson’s text this year, a few students were puzzled as to who her intended audience might be and who was included in that reference to “our turtle’s back.” If some of you have had a chance to read these books, I would be interested in hearing your responses.

As for myself, I was born in Hamilton and attended the University of Toronto to study English at a time when Canadian literature was still not taught for credit within the English honours program. I began my career seeking a comparative context for understanding Canada within the Australian experience. I located different dimensions of Canadian national imaginaries within colonial, postcolonial, and globalizing contexts, and analyzed Canadian contributions to current cultural debates. From focusing on Canada in trans-Pacific contexts when I was based at the University of British Columbia, I moved to analyzing Canada’s place within the Americas, focusing first on the Caribbean and then on Brazil. With the move to Winnipeg, I became interested in Canada’s Northern identity and began collaborating with colleagues in Sweden. Each of these comparative contexts have moved in recent years from being seen as peripheral to global centres toward assuming new significance within the changing, multilateral global system.

Australia is not only a boom and bust resource economy but also a leader in the commercialization of global higher education and a laggard in addressing aboriginal inequality and refugee rights. Until the recent coup, Brazil was reducing poverty but still struggles with massive inequality and corruption. It has a long history of slavery, exploitation of indigenous peoples, and faces its own multicultural challenges. Its current government seems determined to turn back the clock, freezing education, health, and social expenditures for the next 20 years. Sweden, long seen as a leader in ethical internationalism, is confronting its role within Nordic colonialisms and the challenges of integrating many immigrants and refugees into a relatively homogeneous society. Like Canada, these countries face inequities within their own internal Northern and Southern regions. Each offers different models of engagement with indigenous and immigrant populations, and the knowledges they bring to educational programs. These nations provide distinctive models for managing dominant settler/indigenous and multicultural relations; and different ways of dealing with English as a dominant academic and business language. How each negotiates their national position within global imaginaries can help Canadians clarify what is at stake for us in globalizing trends.

I called this talk “Canada in the World” because I don’t believe you can understand this country without understanding the many ways in which it is enmeshed within larger global systems and always has been.  Climate change brings this awareness most clearly to our attention but it should not obscure the many other ways in which Canada has been shaped and has participated in shaping the world around us. How we understand our past shapes our ability to imagine the spaces open to our agency, now and in the future. If we cannot imagine beyond the limits of our present, we will not be able to shape an alternative future. Imagination is key.

My inspiration comes from creative writers, artists, and the work of many scholars across the disciplines. Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank’s 2005 book, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination details the entanglements of local and global in ways that reveal “how porous knowledge practices are” (10). Cruikshank explains how many terms Western-educated scholars assume are self-explanatory are in fact highly contested. Her examples include “land,” “hunting” “resources,” and “property” (11). In my own work, I am especially concerned with the different resonances attached to the word “home,” and how it connects to the idea of rights.

Rights is another contested term that seems to be proliferating everywhere. In The Right to be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet, Sheila Watt-Cloutier argues that “a human rights-based approach [to climate change]… refocuses the debate on humanity rather than solely on economics,” a shift in rhetoric she hopes could “save the planet.” She explains “Everything is connected through our common atmosphere, not to mention our common spirit and humanity. What affects one affects us all. The Arctic, after all, is the cooling system, ‘the air conditioner,’ if you will, for the entire planet.” She concludes, “The future of Inuit is the future of the rest of the world—our home is a barometer for what is happening to our entire planet.”  These are compelling images. The climate change story is a good example of a story that has particular resonance for people in the Arctic, for Canadians, and for the globe. It is both a national story for many peoples and a global story as well. How best literature can tell this story is a conundrum. Watt-Cloutier’s memoir is fascinating for the ways in which it combines her remarkable personal story with the details of what it means to work as a public intellectual and policy activist in a world still dominated by men and by a global North that marginalizes the Arctic. It is notable for the ways in which it insists that the personal is political and for the ways in which its reception seems to show that not everyone is willing or able to value a book that seems to fall between the two stools of telling a personal lifestory and making the climate change case as a policy activist.

In my view, the story-theory, alternative-vocabulary, and discontinuous but linked narratives provided by Simpson and the dramatized, multi-voiced group narrative provided by Hill work more effectively to encourage readers to open themselves to alternative perspectives. But I am curious to hear your views about these texts and the issues they raise for us as readers in our current moment. Hill’s book is set, primarily in Winnipeg, but also briefly in Cameroon, over the course of a year from July 1983 to July 1984. It addresses such Canadian questions as the relationship between French and English, minority rights, stereotypes of natives, hockey violence, poverty and welfare, the charter of rights, border politics (in the context of Canada/US relations and First World/Third World relations), journalistic ethics, systemic sexism and racism, racialized representations in literature, and how to address them in school settings, These are all just as topical today as when the book was published. Listed like that, it sounds like too much. But each of these questions is entangled with the others; they are complex and Hill provides them with the nuance they deserve. His characters are multi-dimensional, flawed and human, alternatively comic and sometimes tragic. Winnipeg itself is one of the book’s characters: its roads, buildings, and monuments and its history traced with care, and its controversies presented as part of a global dialogue.

Simpson’s text starts with her people reclaiming a street and their own, Anishnaabeg  name for a place that is officially called Peterborough. She writes out of her own community’s understanding that, in her words, “the Nishnaabeg have been collectively dispossessed of our national territory; we are an occupied nation” (12). Positioning herself as a learner rather than a teacher, she seeks to free herself from what she calls the “cognitive box of imperialism” (81; 148) by creating and reclaiming “free cognitive spaces” (34) through storytelling. Her book proceeds through a series of embedded stories from which she derives sustenance for her quest to decolonize and imagine “transformed realities” (35). Throughout the book, she performs through her storytelling her view that “imagining aligns us with the emergent and creative forces of the implicate order” (146). While Hill wrote at a time when Canadians were seeking reconciliation between English and French, Simpson writes at a time when reconciliation is being proposed as a route forward for indigenous and settler-descendent and immigrant Canadians. Like most indigenous thinkers, she is suspicious of reconciliation, proposing instead her own vocabulary of re-creation, resurgence, and a new emergence. Both books teach us that language matters; vocabulary, naming, and translation matter; and that negative stereotypes can be destructive of respectful communal relations, both within and beyond our borders.

These stories recognizes that stories need readers and listeners to bring them to completion, and to carry them into public voice so they can enter and shape the public sphere, and in their turn, be reshaped by interaction with it. All kinds of readers, and listeners, are necessary. Specialists have a role to play, perhaps especially to show the ways in which particular texts weave themselves into larger patterns of experience and expression. But the wonderful thing about stories is the ways they find to reach us all.




Works Cited

Brand, Dionne. Inventory. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006.

—. “On Poetry.” Bread Out Of Stone: Recollections on Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming and Politics. Toronto: Coach House, 1998.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. If This is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground. Toronto: Alfred Knopf, 2003.

Cruikshank, Julie. Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver, UBC P, 2005.

Fee, Margery. Literary Land Claims: The “Indian Land Question” from Pontiac’s War to Attawapiskat. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015.

Frye, Northrop. “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada.” In The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, ed. Carl F. Klinck. Toronto: UTP, 1965.

Hopkinson, Nalo. Brown Girl in the Ring. New York: Warner, 1998.

King, Thomas. The Back of the Turtle. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014.

—. The Truth about Stories. Toronto: Anansi, 2003.

Nixon, Rob Slow violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2011.

Palmer, Hazelle, ed. “…but where are you really from?” Stories of Identity and Assimilation in Canada. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1997.

Roy, Arundhati. Capitalism: A Ghost Story. Chicago: Haymarket, 2014.

Shiva, Vandana. “Monocultures of the Mind” Trumpeter. 10.4.

Simpson, Leanne. Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence. Winnipeg: ARP, 2011.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization. Harvard UP, 2012.

Taylor, Drew Hayden. The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel. Toronto: Annick Press, 2007.

Tully, James. Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity. 1995.

Watt-Cloutier, Sheila. The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet. Penguin, 2015.

Literary Studies in Global Contexts: Entanglements, Borders, and Belonging

Abstract: What do Brexit and the recent election in the United States mean for the Anglosphere within current global realignments? To the extent that the rise of English studies globally has been concurrent with the rise of the British Empire and the subsequent rise of the United States as global hegemon after the Second World War, what does the current situation mean for English literary studies? How are we to understand the apparent retreat of both nations from global entanglements into ethnocentric nationalisms and the building of walls, both literal and metaphoric, against perceived others who function as scapegoats for the imagined ills of these once powerful nations?  What is the role of literary studies in negotiating such resurgent nationalisms and their promise of global disentanglement?

This talk will address these question from my place as a student of Canadian, indigenous, and postcolonial  literatures during an anniversary year in which the Canadian state is urging us to celebrate Canada, even as the many calls to action enumerated within the Summary Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada remain to be addressed.  The thinking in this paper derives from my SSHRC and CRC-funded research into globalization and cultural studies, global democracy, and communities renegotiating their identities under globalizing pressures. I will draw on my experience writing an entry on “Globalization Studies” for the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Literary Theory, for which I had to think about what globalization means specifically for literary studies. I am now preparing to respond to Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller’s collaboratively written book, Thinking Literature Across Continents (2017).  Such interdisciplinary and transnational research, so much in the ascendant today, complicates understanding of the bonds linking literature to nation, and compels those of us working within literary studies to consider the ways in which the challenges of a shifting global system translate into the material conditions of our work and our lives.


I wish to recognize that this conference is taking place on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation. To make this acknowledgement is to ground ourselves in our responsibility to land, history, and the ongoing negotiations of nationalisms both recognized and unrecognized. This place is also the capital of the Canadian nation-state at the moment of its 150th birthday celebrations, and of a university that in its very name simultaneously makes claim both to the universal, through “university,” and to the indigenous, through “Ottawa.” My talk situates itself within these contested locations of belonging as they figure within the frictions and flows of globalizing processes, and the interplay of residual, dominant, resurgent, and emergent imaginaries that jostle to define the nation.[ii]

What do Brexit and the recent election in the United States mean for the Anglosphere within current global realignments? To the extent that the rise of English studies globally has been concurrent with the rise of the British Empire and the subsequent rise of the United States as global hegemon after the Second World War, what does the current situation mean for English literary studies? How are we to understand the apparent retreat of both nations from global entanglements into ethnocentric nationalisms and the building of walls, both literal and metaphoric, against perceived others who function as scapegoats for the imagined ills of these once powerful nations?  What is the role of literary studies in negotiating such resurgent nationalisms and their illusory promise of global disentanglement?

At a time when climate change threatens the survival of the earth itself, and when refugees flee wars and famines in ravaged parts of the world in ever-increasing numbers, it can seem a deflection of attention away from what really matters to think about two wealthy First World Nations trying to close their borders and their minds to these disasters, many of their own making. And it may seem even more perverse to worry about the fate of English literary studies in times like these. Yet if these crises are somehow related, as I think they may be, then perhaps it could be useful to try to think about them together. Not to defend the humanities but to recognize that the challenges we face make it impossible to continue with business as usual. The humanities need to adapt to the challenges posed by global climate change in conjunction with contemporary political manifestations of the changing capitalist system as it adapts within and beyond national borders.  Central to that task will be attending to the current role of the imagination in social life.

Why not to “defend” the humanities? The language of defense automatically invokes a border where in reality there is none. The humanities are deeply embedded in every dimension of how people understand their lives and the stories they tell to make sense of the world. To speak of defending the humanities yields too much foundational ground to those who would set up a division and mount an attack on the basis of that false analysis. We need to reset the terms of debate away from reactionary agendas toward forms of agenda-setting that start from our disciplinary strengths: asking questions, telling stories, reading carefully and widely, revisiting history, following through the entangled lines of thought, and listening and thinking together with others about what matters in our lives. These skills are necessary for meaningful democratic participation and for negotiating within the shifting global economy. In previous papers, I have found inspiration in Chantal Mouffe and Bonnie Honig’s versions of agonistic politics and in Carlos Fraenkel’s advocacy of an “open-ended culture of debate.” Today, I want to think further about how, through the work we do, we might enable such practices, which I see as essential to both academic and civic engagements.

One of the chief dangers of ethnocentric nationalism is its refusal to engage in such an open-ended culture of debate and the refuge it takes in what Gayatri Spivak calls “monocultures of the mind” (25). The analogy with the damage caused the earth by agricultural monoculture reinforces the link I am drawing in this paper between habits of mind that have caused the crisis of the Anthropocene and those that generate exclusionary nationalisms. The discipline of English can trace its roots to Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Education and the exclusionary nationalisms that fueled, first within the British and then the American Empires. These still find expression today. Jacob Edmund reminds us that “In the run-up to Brexit, Martin Amis hailed the coming splendid isolation of the United Kingdom as quite proper to the English language’s proven literary superiority: ‘there’s no earthly reason why anyone in the Anglosphere should desperately want to learn a foreign language’” (cited in Edmond 647). It’s harder to hold such a view in officially bilingual or multilingual nations but we all need to ask how the kind of arrogance  expressed here gets produced? Has our discipline played a role in encouraging it? How might it be countered?

Further questions we need to ask ourselves as students of English include. To what extent is our discipline’s history, current organizational structure, and most popular methodologies, still infused with the ideologies of empire, including the misogynistic white nationalisms now gaining strength in the U.S., the U.K., and other parts of the world? To what extent does it promote imaginaries of possessive individualism? To what extent is it complicit with colonial modernities, and in Canada, to its settler colonial manifestations? We have been asking such questions for a while now but it is essential to remember what we have learned so far and continue to dig deeper. We also need to look at the resources within our discipline that enable us to question such destructive appeals and to offer robust alternatives. Further questions we need to ask ourselves as scholars located in Canada include: Why did ex-Toronto Mayor Ford’s supporters refer to themselves as “Ford Nation”? Why do President Trump’s supporters wrap themselves in the U.S. flag? To the extent that these appeals to leader-embodied nationalisms challenge the official nation-state, what do they suggest about contemporary democracy and its unwritten conventional and institutionalized supports? What work does nationalism do in current times, within both political and academic settings? To what extent are Canadians vulnerable to these appeals to misogynistic white nationalism? What are the legacies and institutions that render us either more or less ready to respond to such appeals?

Although Canada has close ties to the U.K. and the U.S., our democratic systems are different, in both their origins and their evolutions. As a result, appeals to nationalism work differently within each place and we need to attend to those differences.  A good example might be Daniel Coleman’s important book, White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada, which documents the ways in which colonial Anglo-nationalism functioned, and continues to function, in English-Canada today. The relation between white civility and Trump-legitimated white rage is more complex than it appears. Official Canadian civility can mask unearned smugness and deflect attention from Canadian deficiencies. Attention to President Trump’s violations of expected standards of civility distracts critique from the policies he is enacting and their short and longer term impacts[iii]. My point is twofold: first, unquestioning standards of civility, assumed to apply universally, carry potentially problematic histories of classism, racism, and colonialism that operate differently within different national contexts and times; and secondly, the functions of  these different standards of civility require care in unpacking when applied to leaders who are assumed to stand in for their nations and when applied to groups who are seen to violate these standards, My first point cautions against analysis pitting Trudeau against Trump and my second point raises at least two further examples: Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of Trump supporters as “deplorables” and the anger many of those ethnic nationalists express for the failure of immigrants, in their view, to observe local standards of behavior.

It is also important to recognize that appeals to populism, whether put forward by Breitbart News or the Manning Centre, are not in themselves either innately or widely popular. Basically decent people can be roused to fury but propaganda is necessary to persuade people to see themselves, others, and their world in this way. Neither knowledge of history nor the lived evidence of people’s daily lives necessarily support the assumptions upon which the rhetoric of the war on terror and the fear of foreign others, now depends. That securitization rhetoric needs to be produced and reinforced on a daily basis. Social media’s capacity for insulating people from the world around us further amplifies propaganda that fuels white nationalism and its populism. As postcolonial theory teaches us, ignorance needs to be produced, continuously reinforced, and where possible, actually rewarded for it to squeeze out experiential and formal forms of knowledge, including those habits of critique and reasoned debate that challenge its dominance.  In these contexts, ignorance is not a sign of stupidity or lack, as too commonly assumed, but rather a produced certainty about the ways things are and should be, and a produced skepticism about claims otherwise.  In its current nationalist forms, in the UK, the US, and Canada, such ignorance relies on the durability of imperial survivals that enable the beneficiaries of discriminatory practices perpetrated by colonialism to misidentify their privilege even as they are able to enjoy its ongoing fruits.[iv]

The clash of civilizations model is a sturdy survival from the days of European imperialism. It relies on an imagined ideal of nations as discrete containers composed of a formula that equates one nation, one language, one ethnicized people, and one culture to a single nation-state, in which the nation is internally homogenous. That container model of a static nation-state is then projected outward within an imagined international system based on cut-throat competition among a grouping of similar monocentric nations. That same model of separate spheres works to set up borders between the human sciences and other sciences, theorized as incommensurable cultures. And it works within English literary studies in Canada to mask the dominance of a focus on England by allocating several period courses to the literature of that island, and only single courses to Canada, the United States, and the rest of the world. As a result of this structure, I find some undergraduates automatically equating English with language in general, and assuming that English literature was the only literature produced in earlier periods or that English is inherently superior to other languages and literatures.

Globally, the container model of nation-states is institutionalized within bodies such as the United Nations but it is a model that has always been challenged by other ways of understanding how people can live and work together within and across state boundaries. The European Union initially provided a model of potential cooperation across national borders within a reimagined supra-regionalism, but it too retains the container model simply scaled up to a higher level. Still, the EU, despite its many failings, appears to challenge the nationalisms that were mobilized by Brexit and that are resurgent in the contemporary United States. Other challenges to these once residual and now re-emergent forms of nationalism come from diverse sources.  Cosmopolitan, human rights, indigenous, feminist, ecocritical, queer, critical race, comparative literature, and new materialist studies, each in their own ways, carry potential to point out the inadequacy of the container-state imaginary to accommodate the actual lifeworlds of human collectivities and their systems of exchange. Ethnic nationalisms need to attack these initiatives to make space for themselves. The models of entanglement developed in these interdisciplinary fields offer alternative ways of conceiving accountability, responsibility, and agency based on the challenges they mount to the separations of nature and culture, individual and society, and ontology and epistemology, as each of these has conventionally been theorized.

In his thinking through the relations of blobs and lines, Tim Ingold offers some resonant materially-based metaphors for helping conceive of human relationality differently. Blob and line in ever-shifting relation together create an alternative to the container-based thinking that enables faith in the power of walls and policed borders.  For Ingold, “Blobs have volume, mass, density: they give us materials. Lines have none of these. What they have, which blobs do not, is torsion, flexion, and vivacity. They give us life. Life began when lines began to emerge and to escape the monopoly of blobs. Where the blob attests to the principle of territorialization, the line bears out the contrary principle of deterritorialization.”  Ingold argues that “in a world where things are continually coming into being through processes of growth and movement—that is, in a word of life—knotting is the fundamental principle of coherence.” This insight has been blocked, he suggests, by the “power of an alternative set of closely linked metaphors. These are the building block, the chain, and the container.” Ingold explains: “though increasingly challenged in fields ranging from particle physics and molecular biology to cognitive science, these metaphors still retain much of their appeal. They lead us to think of a world which is not so much woven from ever unspooling strands as assembled from pre-cut pieces.”  For example, he notes “psychologists continue to speak of the building blocks of thought and of the mind as a container equipped with certain capacities for acquiring epistemic content …” and physicists speak of seeking “the most fundamental building blocks of the universe itself.” The ubiquity of such dead metaphors testifies to the ways they now seem merely the common sense and inescapable descriptors of reality. Ingold’s work, along with that of Anna Tsing, Karen Barad, and Donna Haraway, thus offers alternative metaphorical understandings of such matters with the potential to reshape understandings of the human potential to reimagine community, kinship, and relationality beyond the fear-based imaginaries of reactionary nationalisms.

To rethink human relations through entanglements with others rather than seeking to build walls or delink from such systems is modelled in many of the stories we in literary studies read, teach, and share, helping to expand the possible futures we can imagine. Nationalist idealisms fueling the clash- of- civilizations model die hard for many reasons but here I will stress two. First, they are easier because they are familiar and are repeated and reinforced everywhere. Secondly, they prove useful to capitalism and those benefitting from its shifting dynamics. Who benefits from the upheavals begun by Brexit and Trump’s unconventional behaviour? Who benefits from the appointments and policies already enacted by Trump? The President has surrounded himself with plutocrats who embody the 1% who control so much of the world’s wealth already. They will benefit from the deregulation, privatization, and infrastructural initiatives now underway; from tax cuts for business, which will further hollow out the ability of the state to govern responsibly on behalf of all its citizens; and from diverting what diminished public funds remain toward the military, prison, and private-system educational expansions necessitated by this government’s priorities.

This new American government is not unprecedented. It is true the style is different, less polite and more defiantly destabilizing of the hard-won global order that was forged out of the violence of the Second World War. And that change in style is significant, in that it indicates that the gloves are now off.  Diplomacy and soft power are no longer seen as necessary in fulfilling either deregulatory goals or American exceptionalism.  But even more importantly, the substance of American policy priorities behind the change in style remains the same. As Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy remind us, citing Noam Chomsky, the UN “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was passed in 1948, the same year that George Kennan, American State Department Policy Planning chief, claimed “that if we are to sustain the ‘disparity’ between our [American] wealth and the poverty of others we must put aside ‘idealistic slogans’ and keep to ‘straight power concepts’” (640). The US has never diverged from this credo. President Trump reiterates these priorities and makes them more explicit, shifting away from soft power– diplomacy, education, and trade– backed by superior military power toward stirring up retrograde nationalisms domestically and further expanding the military to back belligerence abroad.

Tariq Ali traces a direct policy line from Thatcher and Reagan, through the Clintons, the Bushes, and Obama that runs the UK and the US according to the interests of capital, undermining democracy and social services, now that their legitimating function is no longer needed. Ali notes: “Contemporary capitalism requires a proper domestic and international legal scaffolding, and referees to adjudicate on inter-company disputes and property rights, but it has no real need for a democratic structure, except as window dressing.” [v] Nancy Fraser concurs, identifying the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as one between “progressive neoliberalism” and “reactionary populism,” a choice, she argues, that her readers should refuse.

Yet simply pointing this out will not be enough. Like Fraser, I believe we need to refuse the terms of this false choice. But I also see logic behind Trump’s use of reactionary populism to discredit universities, climate science, responsible journalism, and the humanities, by naming them as elites, the purveyors of “fake news,” and “enemies within,” who undermine national security along concurrent lines to those terrorists associated with radical Islam. Therefore, the current strategy of calling Trump stupid or deranged is counter-productive as well as ill-conceived. It mis-identifies the problem, making addressing it even harder than it already is. Current strategies of pointing out the personal and systemic damage caused by defunding academic work and restricting the travel and immigration upon which an open democracy depends, fail to address the values of these decision-makers and their supporters, while risking construal as the whining of an already-privileged few. Universities must continue to argue for the value of open societies and the free flow of peoples and ideas, because these are foundational to healthy democracies. At the same time, however, it is clear that attacks on the universities, such as that launched recently by Betsy de Vos, are part of a deliberate strategy to destroy public education, opening education as another market for profit rather than public good, and disabling the capacity for informed critique. If we recognize those facts, then we will need to choose our tactics accordingly. Withdrawing services may not work for academics now any more than it worked for the air traffic controllers under Reagan. We have seen such attacks on experts and intellectual elites before, in Mao’s China and other places taken over by dictatorships reliant on similar appeals to a people.  Because these attacks on elites are so viscerally appealing to those whose identities are validated by the divisions they sow, and so self-confirming in their biases, anyone wishing to question these beliefs cannot afford to debate such imaginaries on their own terms.

Instead, we need to undermine the premises behind them on several fronts simultaneously. We need to look at the whole spectrum of actions that are being authorized “in the name of nationalism,” as our conference title suggests. We need to consider who benefits from such actions. Postcolonial and human rights studies have devoted significant energy to understanding how trauma is transmitted across generations amongst the survivors of atrocities. That work needs to be balanced by more attention to the transmission of beliefs in entitlement across generations of beneficiaries, not just of obvious atrocities but also of the slow violences of systems founded on the development of underdevelopment in Third World nations, and transnational systems of land expropriations, enslavements, and the waging of proxy wars. Literary scholars can learn from work across the disciplines in elucidating how the values that disown accountability for such systems are maintained and promoted today.

If the production of ignorance depends in part on unremitting repetition, as I have suggested, then those of us committed to the search for truth in our research need to find ways to be equally persistent.  If ignorance is produced through insisting that inequalities be adjudicated upon a supposedly equal playing field in which privilege and deprivation are given equal weight, then that framing needs to be challenged. If a false model of balance based on a “he said, she said” model is advanced, with no attention to the inequalities built into that structure, then we need to demolish these framings and refuse to play by these rules. If ignorance depends on denying complexity and falsely asserting that clarity can only be found in over-simplification, then we need to find ways of making the complex more accessible and more pleasurable, not by denying the difficulties of difficult knowledge but by enabling entrance into the pleasures of engaging the difficult. If false certainty is seen as more welcome than genuine uncertainty, then we need to find ways to enable people to feel safer in their daily lives and thus enabled to experiment in engaging the unknown. These are steps to be taken within our society, our disciplines, and our universities.

Finally, within these spaces of engagement, we need to offer more appealing alternatives, both rhetorically and practically. Those misogynistic, racist, and inflammatory actions, currently underway in the name of the U.S. government, while horrific in their impact on many ordinary people’s lives, claim to be enacted in the name of an anti-globalization nationalism, yet if one looks more closely at the larger sphere of engagements of which they form a part, then a different picture emerges. Anger at neoliberal economic globalization is being directed at progressive cosmopolitan globalization. What we are seeing on the economic front is yet another stage in neoliberal globalization, in which the regulatory mechanisms through which the state once provided protections for its citizens and their lifeworlds, and the institutional bases on which democratic practices depend, are together rapidly being dismantled. Brexit and Trumpism are different in many respects but what they share is a commitment to deregulation, increased precarity, and an individualism freed of all social ties and supports. The freedom they espouse in the name of the nation is the freedom of the individual absent of context, which in practice means the freedom of plutocrats and the corporations they own.

I see two big challenges here for English students. The first is posed by language. In our entangled world, words are always in motion and mean differently even as people converse across borders of experience and understanding, making communication fraught with friction and confusions. We use what appear to be the same words but we mean them differently. The second is the role of institutions in either facilitating or inhibiting such communicational cross-talk. In literary studies, we need to pay more attention to both these dimensions of our work.

In a paper I delivered last fall,[vi] I tried to figure out why Canada, although not immune to exclusionary nationalisms, currently seems to be in a better position to resist them. I concluded that numerous factors (geographical, historical, cultural, and political) had combined to provide most Canadians with both institutional and ideological supports for our nation’s founding commitment to peace, order, and good government and for their elaboration into policies of bilingualism, multiculturalism, and managed immigration. A few of these institutionalized supports include: universal health care, a strong public education system, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms and courts committed to enforcing it, a widely shared view of the law as a living tree, a state-managed immigration system largely run in the interests of the state, a willingness to expand monocultural nationalisms into bicultural, multicultural, and transcultural models, and now, we hope, to re-found the Canadian state on recognition of indigenous prior ownership of the land and all that entails in terms of rethinking our internal “nation to nation” partnerships on more equitable grounds.

One element I neglected to mention that I now see as key is our national commitment to a voting system that comparatively speaking is relatively free from gerrymandering and from distortion through unequal access to campaign financing. This is a system where there are limits on campaign financing and there is little voter suppression. As a result, while the number of people actually voting in elections is not as high as we would wish, there is more voter participation, less voter suppression, and less distortion through fundraising, than in our neighbor to the south. These regulations produce greater trust (although still not enough) in the system. Some of these supports were deliberately weakened by the previous Canadian government and not all have yet been reinstated.  Bringing back the compulsory long form census and the Court Challenges program will help. But there is more to be done to replace what was lost over the last ten years in creating conditions in which people can freely debate improvements and trust in the processes to get them made.

My point here is that a nation based on these institutional supports and the security they provide is on much stronger ground than one based on atavistic appeals to an idealized past. I do not see Canada as immune to such challenges. Already Trudeau’s form of “progressive neoliberalism” is losing its allure. But we do have resources here that are not available elsewhere, in which people can still turn to the nation-state for some forms of support and redress.

Each state must find the basis of a national imaginary that works best for them. At the same time, every nation-state is part of a transworld system that is transitioning away from an international to a globalizing model. Citizens of those First World nations that benefited from the old models, in which the rules were skewed in their favour, may long for a return to that world, but corporations looking to the future appear to be operating on two fronts: exploiting nostalgia for glory days of the past in order to engineer institutional innovations that will enable them to profit moving forward. Here is where I see some of the danger for Canada. Our history, geography, and institutional protections may have insulated us from some of the insecurities of the changing world system but the social protections they provide have their limits as capitalism continues to rearrange desires in its destructive image.

So where does that leave our inquiries so far? Humanities research shows us that the world has always been globalized, if we define globalization as characterized by movements across and within shifting sets of borders and patterns of trade. That historically-based research remains important in countering the anti-globalization panics of the ethnocentric nationalisms being promoted so vigorously today. The more specialized sense of globalization associated with neoliberal imaginaries of a post Second World War geopolitical world, the financialization of the economy, the threat of homogenizing culture, and the commodification of everything has complicated understanding of what globalization means and what it might mean.  The globalization simplistically invoked as the enemy of Brexit and Trump voters is not the globalization that most humanities scholars understand when we write about pre-modern forms of globalization, when we advocate (with Appadurai) ‘globalizing the research imagination,’ or when we critique imperialism, neoliberal capitalism,  or the form of “Empire” identified by Hardt and Negri.

I have suggested that theorists and poets, often working with biologists and physicists, are now offering more complex models of the ways in which humans interact with other entities, including other humans, in our world. Although interact is not exactly the right word either. To use it reminds us how deeply embedded those old monocentric ideals of static and bounded ontologies really are.

To get around the problem of the assumptions behind by that word, “interact,” Karen Barad offers “intra-act.” From her work in quantum physics, she argues that the world works through intra-relation. She claims: “How reality is understood matters” (1998 ,103). For her, “the political potential of deconstructive analysis lies not in the simple recognition of the inevitability of exclusions, but in insisting upon accountability for the particular exclusions that are enacted and in taking up the responsibility to perpetually contest and rework the boundaries” (103-104). The ontology she proposes “does not posit some fixed notion of being that is prior to signification (as the classical realist assumes), but neither is being completely inaccessible to language (as in Kantian transcendentalism), nor completely of language (as in linguistic monism).” Her work is more densely argued, but I find an affinity between her thinking and that of Tim Ingold cited earlier. What she calls agential realism “is continually reconstituted through our material-discursive intra-actions” (104 emphasis in original). She seeks to move analysis of how intelligibility is created away from models of representation toward those enabled by entanglement. Given the centrality of representation to both political and literary theories, such a shift offers a challenge to established thinking in both fields.

What would English studies look like if we sought to make that shift? Barad’s book, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, takes its title from the wording of a poem, “Cascade Experiment” by Alice Fulton. Poetry and physics together guide her toward imagining new forms of intelligibility. The challenge is not to apply another discipline to our own but to move beyond our disciplinary comfort zones into zones of encounter that can lead us into articulations that better express our revised understanding of reality and the parameters of agency within it. The pressures derived from globalization and the Anthropocene are pushing thinking in new directions: toward deep history, big data, alternative social imaginaries of indigenous and non-Western cultures, and feminist and ecocritical understandings of entanglement. Within such models, nations no longer appear as the central structural modes of organization for collectivities even as human beings no longer appear as the only networked actors. As Barad warns, every frame involves exclusions as well as inclusions and we need to take responsibility for how they work in the world. These developments can lead to dead ends –what Ingold finds in object oriented ontology—but they can also open exciting avenues for advancing what Arjun Appadurai calls “the research imagination” and for framing it anew within what he names “the right to research.” If it is true that global social justice depends upon global cognitive justice, as Boaventura Sousa de Santos and his collaborators argue, and as I believe, then the challenge of situating national imaginaries within the larger framework of an “ecologies of knowledges” approach  defines a provisional framework through which we might re-examine fundamental imaginings of home, identity, and responsibility.

To conclude, I have suggested that if nationalism as conventionally understood within the framework of the West has always served the interests of the state, then observers need to ask what interests are being served by contemporary appeals to ethnocentric insularity. I have argued that if we pay too much attention to the nationalist rhetoric, we may be missing a bigger picture. In mobilizing nationalism against globalization, the spokespeople for these nationalisms are actually paving the way for more intensified forms of neoliberal globalization. In blaming immigration for increased precarity, such appeals divert attention from those who are truly culpable. In locating fear in terrorism, attention is diverted from climate change and its impacts. I see this nationalist rhetoric as a smokescreen for further deregulation: dismantling state protections for people and for the earth, air, oceans and other living creatures that sustain us all. How we name an issue plays a role in addressing it. We need to ask: how has xenophobic, misogynistic nationalism become the default resource when people become frightened for their security?  And how can the terms of the discussions be altered?

At the heart of these debates is the question of how people understand their world, their agency, and their ability to imagine a better future.  Can literary studies play a role in facilitating constructive civic debates around these questions and strengthening people’s ability to imagine otherwise? We need to take discussion beyond the easy clichés of using literary texts to encourage empathy. We know that reading is not always automatically humanizing. With the rise of many competing theories within the broad domain of the posthumanities, we know too that humanizing the imagination is a fundamentally problematic goal in any case. If humans are the problem identified by naming our current era “the Anthropocene,” then perhaps humanity itself needs to be rethought more carefully. Alternative names for contemporary crises, such as “Capitalocene,” shift the blame from all people to some people but without fundamentally enabling a clearer picture of where literature fits within these large scale analyses. Neither “methodological nationalism” nor “methodological cosmopolitanism” seem adequate to the current situation. Could these methodologies be rethought beyond their anthropocentric origins to better meet the challenge of the Anthropocene?

Dipesh Chakrabarty argues: “We don’t yet know what non-anthropocentrism would practically mean” (42). He turns to geologists, biologists, and earth systems scientists and their awareness of “deep time” for insight into answering such a question. Some of the students with whom I am currently working are re-examining the limits of national imaginaries (Nunes), and  turning to Karen Barad’s theories of “agential realism” (Shaw), to ecopoetics (Dennis Unrau), and to the speculative fictions of creative writers (Strong) in similarly motivated searches for an ethics appropriate to our time and place. Another (Duthie-Kennikutt) is exploring the decolonial indigenous imaginary of vivir bien, “a Spanish translation from indigenous terminologies such as suma qamaña in Aymara, sumac kawsay in Quechua, and ñandereko in Guarani elaborated by social activist, indigenous organizations, anthropologists, and other scholars,” which loosely translated into English means “living well” according to a principle that one cannot live well unless others do also (Ranta 428). Students in Education are exploring dimensions of cognitive justice in fields as varied as additional language learning (Kharchenko), new media usage (Akoh), and instructor feedback on assignments (Struch).  I am learning so much from working with these students and others over the years and look forward to learning more from all of you during the course of this conference.

In 2012, Spivak argued that ‘the world needs an epistemological change that will rearrange desires” (2). That change is now coming through the work of feminist thinkers such as Barad, Haraway, and Tsing, and here in Canada, from the stories of indigenous resurgence articulated by thinkers such as Leanne Simpson, Neal McLeod, James Sakej Henderson, and Taiaiake Alfred. These alternative indigenous nationalisms come from a different place than those fueling Brexit and Trump, as their reclamations of their own once discounted languages are now making clear. These alternative nationalisms suggest the possibility of dancing “a new world into existence” (Simpson 149).  Both forms of contemporary nationalism compel us to look more deeply into the intra-actions of matter and meaning for founding ethical relations beyond the impoverished imaginings currently on offer within hegemonic understandings.

Works Cited

Ali, Tariq. (2015) The Extreme Centre: A Warning. London: Verso.

Appadurai, Arjun (2006) “The Right to Research.” Globalisation, Societies and Education, vol.4, no. 7. 167-177.

Barad, Karen (1998). “Getting Real: Technoscientific Practices and the Materialization of Reality.” differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 10.2. 87-127.

—. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke UP.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. (2017) “The Future of the Human Sciences in the Age of Humans: A Note.” European Journal of Social Theory. Vol.20 (1) 39-43.

Coleman, Daniel. (2006) White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada. Toronto: UTP.

Edmond, Jacob. (2016) “No Discipline: An Introduction to “The Indiscipline of Comparison.’” Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 53, no.4. 647-659.

Fischlin, Daniel and Martha Nandorfy. (2002)  Eduardo Galeano: Through the Looking Glass. Montreal: Black Rose.

Fraenkel, Carlos. (2015) Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Fraser, Nancy. (2017)  “Progressive Neoliberalism versus Reactionary Populism: A Choice that Feminists Should Refuse.” NORA—Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research. 1-3.

Honig, Bonnie. (2003) Democracy and the Foreigner. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Ingold, Tim (2015). The Life of Lines. London & New York: Routledge.

Mouffe, Chantal. (2013) Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. London: Verso.

Ranta, Eija Maria. (2016) “Toward a Decolonial Alternative to Development? The Emergence and Shortcomings of Vivir Bien as State Policy in Bolivia in the Era of Globalization.” Globalizations. 13:4, 425-439.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa, ed. (2007) Cognitive Justice in a Global World: Prudent Knowledges for a Decent Life. Lanham: Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield.

Simpson, Leanne. (2011) Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence. Winnipeg: ARP.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (2012) An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura (2016) Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham & London: Duke Univesity Press.

[i] My thanks to the conference organizers for inspiring my further thinking on this theme, my critical and encouraging editor-readers, Vanessa Nunes and Melanie Dennis Unrau, for helpful suggestions and feedback, and the Canada Research Chairs program for research funding that makes this work possible.

[ii] I am indebted to Raymond Williams for his theorizations of these relations.

[iii] After his presidential address of Feb 28, 2017, he gained positive attention for simply, briefly, and minimally returning to the performances of civility expected from a President, without in any way withdrawing from the actions that should continue to disturb any observers who care about women’s rights, human rights, social justice, and democracy.

[iv] See Ann Laura Stoler, Duress: Imperial Durabilities in our Times, for further analysis of this concept. According to Stoler, “the analytical tools we use to identify either historical continuities or, alternatively, profound ruptures from the past may be obstacles rather than openings.” She also notes there could “be a problem with our vocabularies,” suggesting that we “need to train our senses beyond the more easily identifiable forms that some colonial scholarship schools us to recognize and see.” In this respect, she is thinking about the widespread uses of the “‘haunting’ trace,” “an indelible if invisible gash,” “an enduring fissure, a durable mark.” To accomplish such a task, it would be interesting to start by working with Tim Ingold’s provocative rethinking of lines.

[v] The new economic order Ali cites as summarized by the World Bank fits well with Trump’s agenda in most respects: “ruthless curbs on public expenditure; tax ‘reforms’ … allowing the markets (banks) to determine interest rates …  systematic privatization of all state enterprises; and effective deregulation.” The one exception is “the elimination of quotas and tariffs, thus encouraging foreign direct investments.” These remain policies Trump advocates for other regimes while insisting on the right of the U.S. to impose quotas and tariffs on others in the name of a reinvigorated nationalism.

[vi] “Renewing Transcultural Dialogues in the Age of the Anthropocene,” Paper for the 4th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Keynote March 18 2017 In the Spirit of Nationalism: Reconsidering the Intersections of Nation and Literature
Department of English Tenth Graduate Student Conference
University of Ottawa
17-19 March 2017

Conference Program pdf

Placing a “Place-Possessed” (“Fear”, 81) Robert Kroetsch

This paper looks at Kroetsch through a CanLit, postcolonial, and globalization lens, to think (briefly) about the reception of his work, as I see it, from the late 20th c to today, with a focus in particular on how we might, today, think about his geographical imagination through a double lens of his engagement with Northrop Frye’s question, “where is here?,”  set in dialogue with what a contemporary feminist new materialist orientation might find in his work. This is a progress report on my thinking more than a fully articulated position.

I approach this workshop as someone who has moved across the Canadian continent and across the Pacific in search of challenging employment and with the determination to commit myself absolutely to each place I inhabit, while retaining my emotive attachments long after I have moved on; as someone with mixed feelings about the work of Robert Kroetsch, a thinker and writer who through his mastery of “the lovely treachery of words” has both enchanted me and left me wondering about his place within the ongoing metamorphoses of Canadian settler colonialism and its appropriations of space and place. Finally, as someone now committed to this place, to Winnipeg, I feel shortchanged by the fact that this city seems not to have inspired a major work from his imagination despite his long sojourn here.

As globalization proceeds to challenge established frameworks for making sense of the world, many theorists are arguing we need to rethink our organizational categories such as belonging, place, home, and nation, in addition to such philosophical standbys as epistemology and ontology. What might such rethinking of categories offer to readers of Kroetsch? For me, the self-reflective Kroetsch of A Likely Story, provides an intriguing entrance into thinking about the relations between Kroetsch and place. In ”D-Day and After: Remembering a Scrapbook I Cannot Find,” Kroetsch claims: “my imagination is insistently geographical” (147).  I take part of my title from his essay, “Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction,” from his naming of the prairie texts he is analyzing there as themselves “place-possessed” (81). What does it mean to be “place-possessed”? The sub-title of that essay, “an erotics of space,” further complicates the analysis. How place and space interact remains a challenging question for analysts across the disciplines. But for now, I focus on Kroetsch’s characterization of prairie fiction, as “place-possessed” in ways that are both profoundly gendered and also critical of mainstream gender positionings. In the context of the prairies, and the fictions that he sees emerging from living in that space, what does it mean to have an “insistently geographical imagination”? And how are such descriptions linked?  In other words, what does it mean to be both insistently geographical in one’s imagination and also “place-possessed”? To be “possessed by place” ascribes an agency to place that I will be arguing is more than metaphorical. What the description says about the agency of the person so possessed may be a bit more complex, especially in the context of an “erotics of space.” That phrasing suggests an alternative form of agency, of being open to otherness, perhaps, of desiring to be possessed rather than possessing.  The geographical imagination, on the other hand, inscribes a conscious and active human agency in naming and shaping place. Is one descriptor privileged in Kroetsch, or do they interact in exciting ways we are still discovering?

I think they clearly interact, but am still puzzling through how they do so and what it might mean for reading and appreciating Kroetsch. First: What is the geographical?  Literally, the writing of earth, our foundational place, an activity that often takes the form of mapping. But whose notion of earth and whose writing? The very word suggests that place needs to be written, possibly quantified and scaled, or at least controlled in certain ways, and, more importantly, that the relationship between geography and place cannot be assumed. Human intervention is required.  Kroetsch’s claim appears in a context of insisting on “our being present. Our being here” (147), with that claim achieved through story, memory, and the compiling of a now-lost scrapbook. But who are we? And where is here? Kroetsch references Frye’s famous question in an earlier essay describing Frye as a hero who teaches “the Canadian poet to be anti-colonial” (1989, 59).  Here, he suggests resistance to a colonial writing and modelling of space that turns it into a particular kind of place. Yet as the years pass, and Canada remains clearly mired in colonial habits and the imperial durabilities of our times (Stoler), we are less sure today of how to be anti-colonial, or at least productively so in a way that might truly decolonize our imaginations and our relations to this geographically-inscribed and nationally-imagined place. The anti-colonialism of colonials (the settlers and immigrants who were denigrated by those at the English heart of empire) exists in tension with the internally colonial denigation of western colonials, characterized as double marginalization embraced by mid twentieth century Canadians in Atwood’s terms as kind of victimage, but now further modified by the recognition that all these colonials also benefited to varying degrees from the establishment of the settler colonial state). Therefore, their anti-colonialism differs in kind and extent from the anti-colonialism of indigenous peoples. Colonials mediate between colonizer and colonized in complex and often compromised ways and the writing produced out of such mediations is not easily categorized as one or another.

For many contemporary critics, Kroetsch’s famous questions, “How do you write in a new country? How do you make love in a new country?,” once understood as arising from such dilemmas, are now more often understood as simply constituting an erasure of prior indigenous belonging and of the fact that this place, now named Canada, is far from new. The state may be 150 years old but the place-based and place-possessed imaginaries generated by contending notions of here have longer histories that also challenge the ideas of time and progress that are implicitly behind such questions. These questions that seemed to work so well for aspiring writers in earlier times are not the questions being asked today.

I will suggest here that it may be that Kroetsch’s other questions, “how do you grow a gardener?” (31); “how do you grow a poet?” remain more durable, because more attuned to Kroetsch’s awareness of the agencies of vegetative life and its entanglements with the whole world of things as well as with other animal and human lives. On Wednesday, I heard Catriona Sandilands discuss recent work in plant politics, critical plant studies and plant biopolitics, all forms of analysis designed to challenge “plant blindness,”  as an inability to see plants in themselves, for themselves, as both in the landscape but also as the landscape. She suggests that using these lenses, we humans can see plants as our abjected others and also as a vegetariat, sharing vulnerability with humans who are in the process of being vegetarianized, that is treated like plants in our current neoliberal capitalist systems. Kroetsch is certainly crudely aware of the agency of beans in intra-action with human digestive systems. But perhaps there is more to his invocations of cauliflowers and his comparisons of gardeners to poets than first meets the eye. Perhaps growing up on a farm is at least as important as growing up in the prairies to Kroetsch’s awareness of “place possession.”

In such a context of shifting priorities in theoretical thinking, I am wondering how to place Kroetsch’s often expressed longing for prairie space from exile. Can we see his “deep longing” for what he calls “the west of my blood and bones. My ancestral west, the prairie west, the parklands” (1989, 141) as other than a settler colonial longing that is problematic in the partial story it seems to tell?  I would like to think to think so but I am still working out how to frame that longing in a way that can do justice to its historical situatedness in time/space relations.

In earlier times, the 1970s and 80s, Kroetsch was acclaimed by mainstream Canadian literary studies, in Canada and Europe, for articulating the settler colonial dilemma in its hegemonic nationalist form, that is, for expressing the complexities of a supposedly new country in the language and generic forms of those places who had named themselves as older within imperial frames of reference. Kroetsch wrote of needing to find a voice equal to experiences of place not previously expressed in the languages or forms of European imaginaries. Simona Bertacco titles her study of Kroetsch, Out of Place (2002), a double-edged title that recognizes both that exile from connection to European imaginaries and that emergence from a very particular place, which is the home of his birth and youth to him, the centre of his experience, but periphery to others. Reading his work within the dominant frameworks of the early twenty-first century, Bertacco locates him “between post-modernism and post-colonialism,” seeing him as “typically Canadian” in his development of a “poetics of the periphery” (viii). That seems to me a standard postmodernist position but the postcolonial enables a shift in perspective that starts from the centre of one’s own experience rather than the periphery of others. Kroetsch has always exploited that contrast. He knows that margins are also centres, but he also knows that there is a power imbalance that refuses self-naming to some.

Now, if we revisit his work during our own period, a time more attuned to the shifting contexts brought about by globalization and indigenous resurgence, we may see alternative relations to place, or alternative understandings of what those relations mean. For me, Kroetsch’s geographical imagination is more attuned to “process geographies” (Arjun Appadurai) than to any assumed geographical stability. The presencing of the lost scrapbook needs constant updating. For Kroetsch, it’s about fielding rather than fields. For him, Frye’s question, “where is here?” is not just a settler colonial question arising from a belated sense of arrival but rather a genuinely existential question about shifting relations to places that themselves are always already in motion, sometimes quickly as in the avalanche in The Man From the Creeks, and sometimes only over the longer stretch of deep time, as with “the Battle River, with its deep, post-glacial valley, carving the landscape into form, that defined our parklands location” (112, A Likely Story). Re-reading Kroetsch in light of posthuman geographies can cast a new light on older readings. Place is not just something through which characters move, but rather itself also agential in ways that intra-act with the characters, stories, and voices that structure his work.

I see three dominant approaches to Robert Kroetsch within the Canadian literary field in our current time. In Raymond Williams’s terms, one is residual, one is dominant, or at least perceived as such, and one is emergent. You may dispute my characterization of the residual and the dominant; I am on surer ground in identifying the emergent. But I will throw these out anyway. For me, the residual approach is the older regionalist one, which emphasizes Kroetsch’s roots in the West, in a version of place he develops from the interplay of memory and the orality of a tall tale tradition speaking out of place to a world that sees it as margin to an established centre. Here, I need to say that forms of critical regionalism are redefining region in emergent ways. I suspect that this may be one of the conclusions of our workshop today. Critical regionalism, then, is taking regionalism in new directions that demand more thinking.

The dominant approach, which is fast becoming residual, is the nationalist-postmodern view best expressed by Linda Hutcheon, who famously labelled Robert Kroetsch “Mr. Canadian Postmodern.” That label raises many questions. In what sense is a nation-state as vast and diverse as Canada a place? What does postmodernism have to do with place? Isn’t it a globalized, placeless kind of concept that Hutcheon saw Kroetsch importing into Canada after his long stay in Binghamton?  For Hutcheon, Kroetsch was all about metafiction. His interest in structure, revision, parody, and story about story, about story-making, poetry, and the writer himself all support her views.  The question Hutcheon raises for us today, though, may be: how does Kroetsch ground that learned postmodernism in place? Or does he? Hutcheon appears to take the prairie situatedness of Kroetsch’s work as a part that can represent the Canadian whole with little violence done to its distinctiveness. For her nationalist vision, rooted in a naturalized southern Ontario, a regionalist approach can be reconciled with a nationalist approach in this way. Such an approach privileges an ideal of national identity over a material groundedness in the particularities of lived and remembered local place.

So my tentative argument today is that both the older regionalist and the nationalist approaches are now under attack by scholars who see writers such as Kroetsch as fundamentally expressing masculinist settler-colonial ideologies, displacing, marginalizing, or ventriloquizing indigenous peoples to stake their own claims to the land. In her Literary Land Claims, Margery Fee writes of a trope she calls a “totem transfer” where a person “inherits a creature symbolic of Indigenousness, such as the stallion in Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man” (163). Fee, like W.H. New before her, is interested in understanding such settler colonial articulations of claiming place. A new generation of critics working within emergent forms of critical indigenous, critical race, and diaspora studies tend either to ignore Kroetsch, to dismiss him as irrelevant to their interests, or to attack him for presenting a false view of Canada as a new country. His famous question, “How do you write in a new country?”, once seen as energizing Anglo-Canadian creativity, is now more frequently understood as profoundly misguided, clearing the plains of its long history of indigenous and diverse racialized forms of habitation to enable the telling of partial stories that further privilege the already privileged.

Clearly there is that element in Kroetsch’s characterization of prairie place as a new country. At that point, I always hear the echo in my head of Prospero’s answer to Miranda in The Tempest: “’Tis new to thee.” It does seem clear that for Kroetsch the newness of the country is epistemological and not ontological. It is not essentially new in itself and it is not new, or present in the same way at all, to indigenous peoples. At the same time, it is also possible to see place as new in other ways too, as always already becoming rather than just inertly there. If one sees the land itself not as stable, and not given, but as an agential force in its own right, changing and changed in intra-action (Barad) with all those who dwell there, plants, rocks, animals, and people, and moving at its own pace through history, then the challenge of how to write its ever-changing newness may be seen somewhat differently. I think there are intuitions of such a view in Kroetsch’s writing.

As we saw, Kroetsch’s twentieth century awareness of a colonial lack in the face of Europe and the U.S. could easily be translated from its prairie situatedness into a national sense of belatedness still dominant in the late twentieth century and arguably still present today. Yet in making that locational transition from prairie to nation, one might miss how that “colonial frostbite at the roots of the imagination,” as Frye once put it, takes distinctive form in Kroetsch’s prairie, where place is more than colony, more than landscape, more than emptiness, more than memory, more than weather—but also, all of these things in changing intra-relation. I take the term, “intra-relation” from Karen Barad’s work to indicate a difference from the ways in which we think about inter-relation. In inter-relation, we think about two pre-existing separate identities that come together to form a new kind of relation. In contrast, in intra-relation, the focus falls on the ways in which both emerge from their relations as always already co-constituting forms in motion.

Kroetsch’s poem, “Winter Parka” (31, Too Bad) suggests such an intra-relation among human, clothes, and weather. The speaker’s intra-relation with the parka enables a transition from the iconography of “vertical man, horizontal world (popularized by Laurie Ricou) into various metamorphoses into hybrid forms, from “a half-plucked duck” shedding feathers, on colder days, into a sweating “Michelin Man, / ready to explode,” on warmer days The identities of person and parka shift relationally in intra-action with the changing weather. In relation to the parka, the speaker transforms into two kinds of posthuman cyborgian identity: part animal, part thing, vulnerable through the changing weather patterns to “melt[ing] into green” in a relation through which “We are all casualties” (31). That is, “we” exists less as a distinct identity than as part of relation shaped and reshaped by place and its shifting weather patterns. The poem claims: “We rehearse the seasons” (31). Parka and speaker together in intra-action with the weather are co-producing this unstable drama. The poem is playful, yet it is also true to the particular realities of Winnipeg place.

Kroetsch seldom writes about urban places. The poem: “Pembina Highway, Winnipeg” (43 Too Bad), demonstrates ambivalence about what humans have done to the landscape of this place. He describes the haphazard ugliness of strip mall development and the disorder and smells of the highway, claiming that “What is pasted on billboards is our kind of art” (43). Yet he finds in this scene of crass and smelly chaos, both “The devious ways of pleasure” and “The devious ways of beauty” (43). The poem concludes: “To hell with plastic surgery. We’ve come to like the scars” (43). This built environment, with its “fast food outlets” and “even faster cars” is a long way from how he writes about where he grew up in Alberta or where he worked in the North.  There is a gritty realism in his few Winnipeg allusions that contrasts with what often seems nostalgia for the places of his youth. Yet even here, perhaps, we can see his awareness of the agency of things, what Jane Bennett calls “vibrant matter.”

Perhaps he also finds vibrant matter in what he calls “the unspeakable white glare … of the North.” In A Likely Story, he muses: “Perhaps the generative moment of my young writer’s life came when I realized I had not two pages to write upon but rather two margins to write in. I could write alongside, with and against, the blackly printed page of our inheritance. I could write alongside, with and against, the unspeakable white glare of what I call, metonymically, North” (96). In opposing the fullness of European and US American tradition to the emptiness and silence of the North, he problematically repeats the binaries set up by those who used to argue that Canada had far too much space and not enough history. Yet he sees that “the glare” of the North, while unspeakable for him, also acts upon his imagination, possesses him as it does the speaker and main characters of The Man from the Creeks.  If he cannot write the North, he can write with it and alongside it, and he can emulate it. In a 1976 interview with Michael Enright and Dennis Cooley, he suggests: “You don’t imitate, you emulate” (28). Writers don’t imitate other writers’ work, they emulate it. Writers don’t imitate landscapes, they emulate them, and in emulating them, find themselves changed in the process.  What might that insight mean for re-reading Kroetsch?

Reading through A Likely Story, looking for place, I am struck by how often I am rewarded, but always with a twist. “Did the author write the text, or did the text write the author?” (16), he asks. We are all familiar with that postmodern question. But Kroetsch takes it somewhere else. “I am still uncertain how much we are the creators of the North, and how much we are the creations of the North. Insofar as the North carnivalizes given Canadian assumptions … it seemed an escape from the authority of traditions and hierarchy, an escape that would allow me to become a storyteller. The North …was the very geography of my desire. It was the landscape of my unspeakable narrative intention” (16). Is this statement a creative misreading of place, or an acknowledgement of a co-creative dynamic in which influence is never uni-directional? I think the latter, but I think the language, our language—English—trips him up at moments like this. As I suggested earlier, Karen Barad’s theories of agential realism help me to see a different dynamic in Kroetsch’s intuitions about what it means to be “place-possessed.”

In Cather and Ross, he reads an “erotics of space” in which conventional gender relations and the function of marriage “as a primary metaphor for the world as it should or might be” no longer holds (82). What new models for world as place does Kroetsch find in the prairie writers he reads so assiduously and so generously, and in the books he writes himself?  He begins “the Fear of Women in Prairie Fiction” by asking “How do you establish any sort of close relationship in a landscape—in a physical situation—whose primary characteristic is distance?” 73 italics in original).  Kroetsch’s answer, in poetry, is to focus on intimate, local details, focusing on objects with agency, such as “the ledger stone” (27, Completed Field Notes), or “No. 339—McKenzie’s Pedigreed Early Snowcap Cauliflower” (37) while at the same time asserting: “I come from huge silences” (146).

As part of my globalization research, I have been struck by the ways in which the identity of world itself is now being rethought in contrast to globe and earth as alternative models for our planetary place. Using world as a verb, critics are asking how writers world themselves in a globalizing world where anchors seem to be loosening.  Rob Wilson suggests that worlding “implies a more fully culture-drenched and being-haunted process of ‘de-distancing’ the ever-globalizing world of techno-domination and its badly managed nuclearized standing reserve.”  Such a reaction seems to be happening in “The Ledger,” “Seed Catalogue,” and The Man From the Creeks.

Kroetsch is continually grasping at the mystery of time/place intra-relations in his writing. In “Lonesome Writer Diptych,” a double sided poem, he tells a childhood memory of his eight-year old self taking apart his father’s watch while his father is away for the day and then failing to reassemble it before his father’s return. The balancing column reflects on the impossibility of writing autobiography, while at the same time, finding echoes of his home town and himself in the places, characters, and stories of other writers. Each side reflects on the ways in which place enters, making story and making identity. His childhood plan to dismantle and then reassemble his father’s watch, through the manner of his telling, becomes a reflection on the mutability of place through time. “Rivers are maps of Alberta, maps that shift, change, alter the landscape itself” (112), he writes. Their writing of place challenges human-centred ways of writing and understanding place. “For all our contemporary skepticism,” he writes, “we cannot resist reading the world as a small allegory of this or that. A river has something to do with time, but what does it have to do with a watch” (116).  The father’s intended gift of a watch is implicitly rejected, first through the theft of an intended inheritance, and then the exercise of the poet’s curiosity, in taking apart the mechanism. Refusing to possess the watch, the speaker finds himself, instead, “possessed by place.”

Image Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, 1991-6, sound installation by Anishinabe Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore

Renewing Transcultural Dialogues in the Age of the Anthropocene

Diana Brydon. Paper for the 4th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses. “Multi-Inter-or Trans-cultural Communication: Reflections”


Questions about the survival of multiculturalism and the roles of transcultural dialogue abound these days. Today’s talk argues for the necessity of renewing transcultural dialogues about multiculturalism within nation-states and as part of a global dialogue about immigration and refugee resettlement. I further argue that in order to renew these dialogues effectively, we need to change the terms of the debate. Instead of thinking within the established categories of current discourse, we need to pay attention to emergent theories stressing the entanglements rather than the separations of humans and their environments. My title refers to the age of the Anthropocene—literally, the age of Man. The Anthropocene has gained currency in the last five years but it is highly contested. Theoretical and political arguments are advanced against using this term to signal the current climate change crisis in which human beings are changing the geological face of the earth and much more besides. In using the term here I am signaling three points. 1. There is a link between current humanitarian crises around refugee movements, state multiculturalism, and climate change. 2. Because these crises are linked, the best way to address them, is to start thinking them together.  3. These linkages are complex, site-specific, and in flux. Yes, climate change is a global event, but its local impacts are being felt, and met, or not met, differentially.

Therefore, there is no single model for addressing cross-cultural communication and climate change in ways that can work in all times and places. With that warning in mind, I will raise for discussion the solution offered by Carlos Fraenkel, in his book Teaching Plato in Palestine set in dialogue with the agonistic politics of Chantal Mouffe.  Fraenkel records philosophical conversations in a variety of locations across the globe that each model different ways of cultivating an open-ended culture of debate. An alternative model of debate is recorded in Jason W. Moore’s edited book, Anthropocene or Capitolocene?, Is this the Age of Man or the Age of Capital? How we name a problem matters.

In academia, we need to strengthen attitudes of openness and avoid foreclosure of important debates. In politics, there comes a time of decision when choices must be made. For such situations, Chantal Mouffe’s model of democracy that she calls “agonistic pluralism,” is most helpful. She argues that “a central task of democratic politics is to provide the institutions which will permit conflicts to take an ‘agonistic’ form, where the opponents are not enemies—not antagonists– but adversaries among whom exists a conflictual consensus.” On some things, we can agree to disagree. In this talk, I argue that multicultural policies can enable a democratic practice in which, conflicts will not disappear but will be “less likely to take an antagonistic form.” Like Fraenkel, Mouffe argues that “the democratic ideal can be inscribed differentially in a variety of contexts.” Democratization does not require Westernization. I argue that multiculturalism too can work differently in different times and places, and that it may help us imagine a world beyond Western notions of cosmopolitanism.

Today, I use Anthropocene rather than rival terms for current environmental crises because it allows us to stage such debates within a broader frame of reference than attention to capital alone allows. Whether we stress the impact of humans on their environment in a general way—the Anthropocene—or focus more specifically on the system of capitalism and its impact, these big picture frames for understanding our global situation require attention.  Our ideas about culture need to change from the terms set by a focus on identity, possessive individualism, traditional humanisms, and the borders they erect toward models that recognize the co-dependencies of humans within a world of entangled frictions and flux.

The Anthropocene fails to capture that necessary shift in emphasis even as it currently stands out as a possible successor to globalization as a new grand theory to describe the challenge of our times. Coined in 2000 by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, the Anthropocene has been proposed by a team of earth scientists as the latest addition to the Geological Time Scale, following the Holocene, the epoch that began at the end of the last Ice Age. While there are multiple definitions of the kinds of evidence that might justify the naming of a new epoch, the key determining feature of the Anthropocene is its emphasis on the observable effects of human activity on the planet. It’s a type of grand narrative that means different things to different people. My interest is in the way it pushes our thinking beyond interdisciplinary dialogue into bringing together categories that we have traditionally been encouraged to keep apart: local and global, nature and culture, public and private, national identity and multicultural identity.

My argument follows in three parts, I will first speak about the Canadian history of multiculturalism and its current exceptional status within the international scene. I will then discuss Carolos Fraenkel’s ideas about cultivating an open-ended culture of dialogue. In my conclusion, I will return to the transcultural challenge of thinking the Anthropocene and beyond it.

  1. Current multicultural debates and the Canadian exception

People point to a number of recent events to support their views that multiculturalism is dead. Numerous terrorist attacks on civilians across Europe. Brexit: the United Kingdom’s vote to exit the European Union. The election of Donald Trump in the recent United States elections. Escalating climate change is logically the biggest threat facing people today. Yet fears of foreigners, immigrants, and refugees, seem to be much stronger—especially within countries of the global North, which, objectively, are dealing with smaller numbers than are many of the countries of the global South. As a result of these fears, the embrace of xenophobia is on the rise in many parts of the Anglophone and European world. Except in Canada. What does this mean? Why is Canada so different? Is it really that different? Is there a Canadian model that can be exported around the world? Does Canada really offer one vision of a viable future for thinking about how to make intercultural communication work? If it is a form of multi-, inter-, or trans-cultural communication that makes Canada work as well as it does, then what is the link between these forms of diversity and a secure and equitable society? This conference is devoted to discussing some of these questions. My contribution derives from my dual role as an analyst of Canada and a student of globalization. I hope it will stimulate further discussion during the rest of the conference.

This talk will chart a path for thinking about these questions more deeply. Canada’s difference is a product of geography, history, some shrewd decisions at moments of opportunity, and a certain amount of luck. The specificity of the Canadian experience makes it difficult to export as a model for anyone else. But it may suggest strategies for enabling transculturalism. I prefer transculturalism to multi- or inter-culturalism because it suggests that culture is created by human beings in interaction with each other and with what Jane Bennett calls the “vibrant matter” of their environments. Culture is never static. It is always produced. Trans suggests this interactive and entangled dimension of culture in ways that multi- and inter- as modifiers do not.

Canada is a settler-colonial state, populated by immigrants, some of whom took the country from its first inhabitants through a combination of force, legislated appropriations, and dishonoured treaties. Not all areas have treaties and there are substantial disagreements about how the treaties should be interpreted and honoured today. Although indigenous people are a small portion of the total population of the country, their role as recently recognized founding nations and original owners of the unceded territory of the land, plays an important part in how Canada understands itself as a nation today. They cannot be seen as simply one component making up the multicultural nation and their demands for decolonization need to be heard. As an immigrant-receiving settler-colonial state, Canada has always needed immigrants to power its economy and populate its territory. Its geography has made it possible for Canada to pick and choose its immigrants. Unlike Europe, Canada is bounded by three seas. It is not easy to get to Canada, and in the past, even the few ships with refugees who managed to make the long journey, were sometimes sent back rather than accepted into the country. Canada has regulated its immigrant and refugee intake since 1869, two years after it was officially founded as a nation. Like the other so-called white Commonwealth countries, Canada took most of its immigrants from Europe until a switch from family reunification policies toward a points based system awarded for skills and language proficiency was introduced in 1967.

My point here is that Canadian immigration has always been managed by the state in the interests of the state. Canada has almost always been selective in the immigrants it has approved and even with the recent increase in intake under the new Trudeau federal government, Canada takes fewer immigrants, proportionate to its population, than does Sweden. In Canada, immigration and multiculturalism are joint state projects. Multiculturalism works to integrate immigrants into the Canadian diversity-based national identity, encouraging the retention of languages and customs to the extent that they are compatible with the Canadian values protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Canada adopted an official policy of multiculturalism at a particular point in its history, under the direction of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in part as a way of managing sovereignty demands from Quebec. Biculturalism came first. After the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism that ran from 1963 to 1969, Parliament passed the Official Languages Act in 1969. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act followed in 1988. That policy has been contentious ever since, and it has evolved continuously to the point where it is more appropriate to call it a model of transculturalism. Neither the mosaic nor the melting pot work well anymore as images of how transculturalism works in national practice. With transculturalism, established borders become porous and leaky; they do not disappear but they shift, depending in part on where the viewer stands within or outside them, and in part on the functions they perform.

From this brief history, you can see five distinct features of Canadian multiculturalism. 1. It was made necessary by Canada’s need for immigrants and its need to both accommodate and contain Quebec nationalism and French speakers across the nation. 2. It was a state-sponsored initiative, conceived and managed by the state in its interests. 3. As the needs of the state have changed, so have its immigration policies and its attitudes to multiculturalism. 4. Canada was the first nation in the world to legislate multiculturalism as an official policy and over the years, it has come to shape many Canadians’ vision of themselves. 5. As a policy, it seems to have worked quite well. But it works because immigration has always been managed and immigration numbers are relatively low. Canadian support for immigration is pragmatic. Demographers have suggested that the points-based system has meant that immigrants to Canada come from a wide variety of places, ensuring diversity, and preventing a high concentration of members from any one group.

Still, one wonders, what makes this diversity work as well as it does in Canada when it does not seem to be working in Australia, Britain, or the U.S.– countries one might think have similar democracies? Perhaps most Canadians feel little fear of immigrants because their own lives are relatively secure. Canadians enjoy a range of public policies that provide a significant degree of security. In addition to universal public medical insurance and an excellent public education system, we have the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, employment insurance, paid maternity leave, welfare, and smaller programs, all designed to ensure that fewer people fall through the cracks. We have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, put in place in 1982. Teachers and government workers are well paid. These protections make Canadians less fearful of others and help ensure that Canada remains a country of high social mobility.

Some of these programs, such as medicare, multiculturalism, and the Charter, constitute the fabric of Canadian identity, which otherwise is less nationalistic than that of comparator nations. These programs are evidence of Canadians’ willingness to change with the times, and adapt our national culture to changing views of what is just. Our relatively early abolishment of the death penalty and adoption of same sex marriage are further testament to our willingness to see our culture as constantly evolving and growing. Such a view is consistent with that expressed by a majority on our Supreme Court, which sees the law as a living tree rather than frozen from the time of its first constitutional enactments.

I have been thinking about these issues because I have been asked about the Canadian model increasingly since the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government in the fall of 2015. The Liberals, and it seemed Canadians more generally, embraced a policy of welcoming Syrian refugees, promising to reset relations with Canadian First Nations, and appointing a Cabinet that reflected Canadian diversity, including for the first time, half of them women. The Cabinet includes Sikhs, a young woman who was an Afghan refugee as a child, and several members of different First Nations, The official face of our government is diverse. Without genuine social mobility on all fronts, these appointments could be dismissed as mere window dressing. They represent a beginning on which the nation needs to build.

So multiculturalism appears to be fully entrenched, generally embraced, and still evolving in Canada. Quebec embraces a policy of laicité, or official secularism, derived from France. This policy can sometimes conflict with values of multiculturalism in other parts of Canada. But Quebec does not embrace insularity or xenophobia. Quebec advocates its own policy of interculturalism. The difference is one of emphasis.

The old multicultural model of a mosaic is now seen as too static. It suggests that culture is a possession rather than a process. Surveys tell us that most Canadians, including Quebeckers, believe that immigrants should adapt to Canadian values, especially our belief in the equality of persons. How that belief is manifested is still a matter of debate. But the belief itself is core. Is women’s equality best respected through an affirmation of her choices as an individual, or through an affirmation of the state’s official commitment to secularism in all things? Should a woman’s individual right to choose her clothing take precedence over the state’s commitment to secularism in attire as well as actions? There is no simple answer. But Canadians continue to have the debate. The more we explore such questions together, in respectful dialogue, the more likely we are to come eventually to some consensual decisions about how best to govern our lives together, at least until better ideas emerge.  We may also continue to agree to disagree on implementation. The protections afforded by the Canadian Charter make it possible for Canadians to engage in risky debates together.

To sum up: In this section, I have argued that state provisions of a social safety net, active protections of rights, openness to legislating progressive social change, and above all, institutional supports for these provisions, enable members of Canadian society to engage in the cultivation of an open-ended culture of debate, the focus of my second section,

  1. Cultivating an open-ended culture of debate

In the title of this talk I used the word, dialogue, rather than debate. That was deliberate. When I delivered a talk in Sweden about the open society and stressed the need for debate, some in the audience worried that debates were too confrontational. Too often, they are conducted to win points, instead of collaboratively working together to discover truth. Sadly, this is a dominant tradition of debate in Anglophone cultures. We saw it at its worst in the recent U.S. elections. That is not what I mean here.

An open-ended debate in a truly transcultural mode is more like a dialogue conducted with the goal of deepening understanding across differences and creating the kind of culture in which disagreements can be welcomed as opportunities to search together for emergent truths and values. Carlos Fraenkel calls this kind of discussion an “open-ended debate.” Accepted cultural norms may remain “hidden and inarticulate” under normal circumstances, so we “should welcome the disruptions that compel us to confront them.” His views come from his personal experience as a child of Jewish Brazilian immigrants who fled the dictatorship to live for a while in Germany, and then returned to Brazil when he was a young boy. He now teaches philosophy at McGill University in Canada.

What I find most valuable about his book is the individual case studies he narrates of his extended encounters with different communities around the world to engage in this kind of debate around the issues most immediate to their situations. Through the stories he tells of the workshops he ran, he hopes to “show by example and argument that making philosophy part of our personal and public lives is something worthwhile.”

He makes some bold claims: “Can philosophy save the Middle East? It can.” Through a seminar he co-teaches at Al-Quds University, the Palestinian university in Jerusalem, he hopes to raise questions about philosophy, politics and religion that might open “a new perspective on the Middle East.” He expects the texts to resonate differently there than with his students in Montreal, and they do. With two professors in the classroom, formed within different religious identities, it becomes easier to dramatize the procedures of open-ended debate. His method is to help his students “rediscover the wide variety of positions that were defended in the history of Islamic thought,” thereby opening discussion beyond what Vandana Shiva calls a “monoculture of the mind.” For Shiva, this phrase describes the authoritarian blindness that drove the Green Revolution and its destruction of seed biodiversity and local seed sovereignty in favour of bioengineered and expensive seeds owned by a corporate monopoly. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak adapts the phrase—monoculture of the mind– to describe the denial of difference within social, economic, and political spheres. It has become one of my favourite metaphors for the closed society. We see such closures happening in many parts of the world today.

Fraenkel starts his workshop by connecting his experience  with that of his workshop’s participants. From the Middle East, he goes to Indonesia, then a Hasidic Jewish community in New York, a public high school in Salvador, Brazil, and finally Akwesasne, one of the largest Mohawk reserves in North America, just outside Montreal. These latter two raise the citizenship questions that most interest me. In each, he takes his workshops beyond a university setting into versions of the public sphere.

“Citizen Philosophers in Brazil” raises questions about how to achieve equality in one of the world’s most unequal societies and “Word-Warriors: Philosophy in Mohawk Land” considers the challenges of designing self-governance for a community of roughly twelve thousand Mohawks whose territory is “crisscrossed by five national and provincial borders: Canada, the United States, Quebec, Ontario, and New York.” In addition to these jurisdictions, there are two officially recognized governing bodies and two traditional Mohawk governing bodies that carry authority with the people but not with the Canadian or American governments. Given the community’s long history of colonization, Fraenkel explains: “some of the most fundamental questions require new answers: how to reconcile modernity and tradition, what it means to live well, who should rule, and who counts as a Mohawk.”  In both places, the value of what he is trying to do is questioned, especially by those whose authority would be undermined by an open culture of debate.

In Brazil, he is challenged by both elitist academic philosophers in the universities and by pragmatic teachers who teach to the tests that govern students’ life chances in a system where access to good higher education is limited and mostly denied to the racialized poor. In Akwesasne, his motives for approaching their community are challenged as is the value of the discussions he can offer. But in both cases, interesting discussions are recorded although no conclusions are reached. Fraenkel concedes that philosophical discussions “are often inconclusive.” But he contends that conclusiveness has been over-valued. What he offers are some of the tools for arriving at decisions and revising them as times and needs change. Those tools are what we in the university community can offer to the shaping and conduct of our respective national debates about the values of multiculturalism, interculturalism, and transculturalism.

Fraaenkel concludes people today are lucky that globalizing processes are making it impossible for people “to avoid exposure to beliefs and values different from our own” because this situation puts us all “under pressure to justify what we think and do.” He admits, though, that “diversity and disagreement on their own” are insufficient. His argument is for fostering “a culture of debate—an institutional framework in which diversity and disagreement can be transformed into a joint search for the truth.” An open-ended culture of debate is a particular form of transculturality, in which cultures co-create each other through debate. Fraenkel believes people need training in “techniques of debate,” how to clarify one’s views and meet objections, and training in the “virtues of debate,” that is, in “valuing the truth more than winning an argument.” We need to discuss further how to encourage such a culture, what institutional supports we can devise to support it, and what societal structures inhibit its growth.

Fraenkel’s stories are good to think with. His account of the opposition his project met from established university Philosophy departments in Brazil is discouraging. Could his techniques for encouraging an open-ended culture of debate be scaled up from small group discussion to a nation-wide level? Could they be adapted to calm fears of immigration and multicultural policies on the larger scale of nation-wide discussions?  He believes that “If we can transform disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace.” Is this too optimistic?

In Canada, there are some examples of how such debates have worked.  Canadians have now developed a long tradition of debating what counts as a “reasonable accommodation” of practices that fall outside established hegemonic societal norms. The discussions don’t get any easier, yet in the long run, they can lead to progressive social change. Canadians used to debate the appropriateness of the Sikh male turban within public spaces. That is no longer an issue. Neither is same-sex marriage. Gender neutral bathrooms have entered the public domain in Canada with little fuss. In some circles, however, the niqab still arouses emotional debates.  These public signs of difference can act as flashpoints for violence in some constituencies, whereas in others, when conducted in an open-minded spirit of inquiry, they can lead people into deeper discussions of societal values.

Central to an “open-ended culture of debate” is the willingness to change your mind after careful examination of the issues, if the evidence warrants it. It allows for achieving greater clarity about why certain values matter and what is at stake in defending them. Before it was defunded in 2006, the Law Commission of Canada performed a similar function, consulting widely on emergent issues of concern and making recommendations on necessary updating of the law to take account of changing circumstances, needs, knowledges, and social norms. After consultation, it recommended legalizing same sex marriage and the government of the day then followed through on that recommendation. If the rule of law is to maintain its legitimacy and hold respect, it needs to work to bring itself closer to ideals of justice. It is in this sense that Fraenkel too believes that through informed discussion, people can progress.

There are two potential problems with his argument. In his defense of reason, does he pay insufficient attention to the role of emotion?  In his core value of freedom of expression, is he at risk of promotion a form of ethnocentricism? He addresses these, but questions remain. I raise his book today to ask the question behind my paper: Given a problem as big as the Anthropocene, will an open-ended culture of debate be sufficient for achieving communal agreements on appropriate climate change action in time?

  1. Anthropocene Imaginaries

The Anthropocene is a transworld problem but how transcultural are Anthropocene debates? How open are these debates to ways of understanding the world that were colonized by Western cultures? The Anthropocene as a concept is used in two ways, each of which privileges human agency. It is used by many to criticize the ways in which humans are killing other species, polluting the environment, and causing climate change. And it is also used by some to suggest that humans will be able to solve the problems they have created through further technical ingenuity. The first use argues that humans need to change their ways; the second, that they must continue even more aggressively on the same path.

In this context, we need to change the terms of the debate. Non-Western cultures suggest imagining a world in which human beings are not the sole figures with agency, a world in which we exist among many other living things with their own kinds of interacting agencies. Furthermore, far from being distinct from these worlds, human beings are also entangled within them.  Once, such cultures were consigned to the past and their insights were disregarded. Now, times are changing. Their ways of knowing are being revived, and they are finding complementary partners among many Western-trained scientists.



The work of scientists, poets, and indigenous peoples around the globe are coming together in ways not previously seen. Alternatives to neoliberal imaginaries of a universal system are advanced within the justice-seeking stories explaining the pluriversal realities of subalternized peoples around the globe. They have long recognized what physicist Karen Barad calls the “entanglement of matter and meaning,” Those entanglements are respected within decolonial, indigenous, and new materialist framings of how to live well through decolonizing the modes of knowing derived from colonial modernity. These theories challenge what Julia Suarez-Krabbe (citing her indigenous interlocutors) calls colonial modernity’s “death project.” In such work, the “slow violence” (Nixon) of imperial and environmental devastation are shown to be inseparable from the epistemic violence of their imaginings. Illustrative counterparts to these theories may be found in the poetry and fiction of many writers from around the world, whose metaphors and stories can help readers understand what is at stake in imagining alternative ways of inhabiting the world as our home. Learning to listen, to read, and to interpret such imaginings can redirect transcultural dialogue toward the values of respect, reciprocity, and negotiation that are necessary for genuine thinking and communication to take place. Donna Haraway offers the idea of “staying with the trouble” as her model for rejecting both cynical despair and naïve hope as responses to the challenge of our times. To stay with the trouble is to accept the challenge of difficult forms of knowledge, and of living together in our various localities within the world. Haraway pushes multi and transcultural imaginaries even further beyond anthropocentric formations to argue for the need to “make kin” with other beings. Such a shift in thinking need not be at the expense, however, of human suffering around the globe.

Many refugees and so-called economic migrants are fleeing environmental disasters, desertification, rising ocean levels, and other kinds of violence resulting from escalating climate change, These problems are pressing. More stable nations cannot accept all of them but we must learn how to help more effectively, by welcoming them into our societies where possible, by helping them in place, and by addressing the causes of their dispossession. These causes are multiform but they are connected to imaginaries that make them seem insoluble. The problems need to be addressed concurrently on at least three scales of engagement. 1. To make life more tolerable, wherever possible, where people are; 2. To aid the movements of peoples to resettle elsewhere, when necessary; and 3. To change the kinds of thinking that have led our world to its present state of crisis. Canada is not doing enough on any of these fronts. Nonetheless, states remain crucial actors whose actions can be influenced by an engaged population. But, neither citizens nor states can make the necessary shifts in attitude and policy without fundamentally changing the terms in which we stage our public policy debates.

The research for this paper was funded, in part, through the Canada Research Chairs program.

Works Cited

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2007.

Fraenkel, Carlos. Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy for a Divided World.

Hamilton, Clive. Christophe Bonneuil and Francois Genenne, eds. The Anthropocence and the Global Environmental Crisis. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Pfress, 2016.

Moore, Jason W., ed. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016.

Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically. London: Verso, 2013.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Shiva, Vandana. “Moonocultures of the Mind,” Trumpeter 10.4 (1993): 1-11.

Suarez-Krabbe, Julia. Race, Rights and Rebels: Alternatives to Human Rights and Development from the Global South. London & New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.