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Canadian Literary Debates and the Question of Identity


Why is identity so central to literary and cultural studies? This question has always puzzled me. It is such a disputed, multi-faceted, and problematic concept, could those of us who study culture not do better without it? In my own work, I have tried to shift analysis toward questions of agency through exploring autonomy, transnational literacy, and communal negotiation, yet I have to recognize that in the current era, questions of identity appear for many people more urgent than ever. Globalization brings both homogenization in some spheres and an increased tolerance for diversity in others. Both changes can threaten stable notions of identity. North-American poet-critic Charles Bernstein suggests that “No issue has dogged poetry so much in the past two decades as identity—national, social, ethnic, racial, and local.” We could add gender and sexual orientation to this list. He continues: “Like the Americas, identity is always plural. And like the Americas, identity is necessarily, a priori, identity-obsessed parts, syncretic and braided, indeed, self-cannibalizing, as surely as the DNA that flows in our psyches and concatenates our mental projections” (Bernstein, “Our Americas” 67-68). Here Bernstein voices an emergent view of identity as plural, fluid, interactive, and always in transition, a view that shapes how many linguists and poets understand language today, but which remains somewhat at odds with the reality that identities may also be experienced by many as far less fluid in practice. In this paper, I am interested in how what Bernstein calls “mental projections” may be created through literature. Identity proved a rallying cry for two of the popular social movements of the last few years: the Occupy movement and Idle No More. Occupy emerged in response to a global trend toward increased economic inequalities, recognizing the power imbalances separating the 99 per cent from the 1 per cent, and then took root in many different localities, perhaps especially of the developed world, while Idle No More began in Canada in response to a specific issue and then aroused global interest in its call for social justice and its reminder that the Americas was land already occupied.

In similar interwoven fashion, I see recent trajectories of Canadian literary debates as simultaneously arising in response to our own time and place and interacting with global theoretical fashions, so as to reconfigure them in dialogue with local concerns and orientations. Instead of seeing Canadian literary traditions as derivative of models formed elsewhere, I see them as sometimes concurrently developing comparable models and at other times forming their own distinctive kinds of engagements with the compelling issues of the day.

Today’s talk emerges from my interactions with the Concurrences Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies in Vaxjo, Sweden, where I have spent the last four months engaging with their research group, which seeks to develop “methodological and theoretical foundations for empirical studies that map forms of simultaneous, concurring claims of reality, experience, and meaning.” Their chief research question asks “whether and how it is possible to listen to complementary or conflicting occurrences at the same time and in the same place,” or, put differently, how can the researcher “allow multiple voices to be heard, stories that voice concurrent claims on geographical, temporal, political, and moral spaces.” For me, this question resonates with settler/colonial particularities but it has a much wider reach. As Metis writer Emma LaRoque asks: what happens “when the other is me”? Their project is interdisciplinary and collaborative. Concerned by the ways in which many different disciplines and streams within them seem to be investigating similar questions from different angles, they wonder if it will be possible to bring those investigations together so as to create a greater cross-fertilization of ideas. While the focus of their work is postcolonial, my visit constitutes one of their first engagements with Canadian studies. So this talk, written for an audience in Israel, emerges from my readings of Canadian texts from a Swedish location, in which Walter Mignolo’s revision of Descartes’s formula,” I think, therefore I am” resonates deeply with me. From his own location in the Americas reading the history of colonial modernity, Mignolo proposes “I am where I think,” which for me seems to echo Northrop Frye’s framing of the Canadian identity question as one that asks, not “who am I?”, but: “where is here?”

The full paper may be read online at this link.


Bhabha, Homi K., ed. 1990. Nation and Narration. New York and London: Routledge.

Brand, Dionne. 2005. What We All Long For. Toronto: Vintage.

Cariou, Warren.”’How Come these Guns are so Tall’: Anti-corporate Resistance in Marvin Francis’s City Treaty.”

—. “Foreword.” Marvin Francis. Bush Camp.

Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class; and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. New York: Basic Books: 2002.

Francis, Daniel. 2002. City Treaty: a long poem. Winnipeg: Turnstone.

—. “Description of Proposal.” Daniel Francis Fonds. Archives. University of Manitoba.

Heti, Sheila.2012. How Should a Person Be? Toronto: Anansi

—. “A New Canadian Myth for New Canadian Times.” Response to the Globe and Mail. Post April 15, 2013

  1. Occupy Wall Street, like Idle No More, also started in Canada. It was the brainchild of Adbusters, later taken up by Anonymous and other groups. (I discuss the full story of its origins in my book, Digital Prohibition: Piracy and Authorship in New Media Art.)

  2. Catherine Khordoc permalink

    Thank you for this piece. These questions are endless, in many ways, and yet we keep posing them…

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