New Orientations in Canadian Nationalism – And Tim Hortons!

February 24, 2010

My Honourary Olympics post on Canadian Nationalism got a fair bit of traffic and some thoughtful comments last week, which I suspect can be attributed to the fact that we are quite an introspective nation and going through a very introspective time. Canadians love to talk about what makes us unique, how we differ from other countries (especially, ahem, our neighbours to the south), and how we differ from what other people think we are. Are we friendly? Polite? Clean? Aggressive? Neurotic? Arrogant? White? Black? All of the above, I think – and happily so.

Timothy Egan, writing for his blog in the New York Times, very accurately captures our diversity – but seems unaware that we already know all about it. You’ve probably already read the following quote from his post somewhere around the web. It reduces our introspection to insecure hand-wringing:

Why the lack of self-esteem? Canada — snap out of it! You’re gorgeous, baby, you’re sophisticated, you live well. No need for an apology.

Typical American brashness (see? two can play this stereotyping game!). As though we all understand and explain our national cultures the same way. I much prefer this one, from Judith Timson of The Globe & Mail:

We are already who we are, a magnificent blend of urban and rural, of flying canoes and Chinese grocery stores, of heart-stopping scenery and mind-blowing talent, all of it confirming on a daily basis there is no Canadian identity crisis, only an identity crisis industry.

It’s so true. We are a blend. Not a melting pot, or a salad, though. Perhaps a high-quality vinaigrette, one that has clearly identifiable parts to it that sometimes separate, but that but generally mixes well together. This is what makes it so hard to talk about a Canadian “type,” as I did last week. Historically, there was, in the official literature and thinking about Canada, a definite “colonial type” – rugged and masculine, white, and very British in orientation. The old Canadian colonial type is clearly present in this hilarious ad by HBC. But then the officials doing the thinking changed, and the way Canadians started to think and talk about ourselves changed too.

Particularly in the years after World War II, improvements in communications technology and the advent of air travel further reduced the conceptual distance between geographical spaces, and made the world appear to shrink as never before.  The number of (overt) supporters of imperialism dwindled, both in the British Empire and around the world. This shift was reflected in Canadian historiography, in which imperialism was often categorized as the opposite of nationalism, and a losing allegiance. Canada’s relationship with Britain has consequently received less attention than a historical narrative which seeks to recover (or perhaps invent) a pluralistic and multicultural history more in accordance with present-day Canadian national values. To emphasize British influence in the past is to deny the influence of French, Aboriginal, or other immigrant groups to Canada, now a highly politically-charged issue.

Instead, historians have increasingly focused on Canada’s relationship with the United States, portraying Canada as a diplomatic intermediary of sorts between America and Britain. (This can perhaps be read as an attempt to grant Canada political capital in the post-World War II world by emphasizing the arbitrary role Canada played in events like the Suez Crisis and the lead-up to the Vietnam War. But that’s another story entirely.)  The predominant narrative of the past 60 years has emphasized the inevitability of the Canada-U.S. relationship in the history of both countries – and the links between Canada and the countries where so many of its citizens were born.

There is another ad that is making me sit up and take notice this Olympic season. It’s for Tim Hortons, which perhaps has an even greater claim on speaking for Canadian identity than HBC. It chronicles a “true story” of the “new” Canada, with new, multicultural immigrants and strong families – not a bunch of rugged, white, English fellows struggling against the driving snow.  In fact, I don’t think there’s a white person in the entire video. Check it out here to see what I mean. We’re also seeing Canadian Tire commercials in which kids know how to skate – of course! like all Canadian children! – but their (presumably immigrant) parents don’t. It’s a completely different image, and probably one that speaks to many more Canadians who have bought into and propagated the new national narrative of multiculturalism. And sells more terrible coffee and snow shovels, probably.

The British press has been slamming Canada right, left, and centre for not living up to the world’s expectations of our national character. The irony is that the new Canada doesn’t really care what Britain has to say. Now, if it comes from the US? That’s a whole different story.

What do you think? Is the new Canadian “type” more accurate than the old one? Do you think Canada has tried to blur/erase its past connections with Britain in favour of multiculturalism? Or ties to the US? And which commercial wins: HBC’s or Timmy Hos’?

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Cultural Intermediaries in the Wikipedian Age

February 22, 2010

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how technology has changed the way we communicate. It has obviously changed the tenor of our conversations:  they happen much more quickly now, and many at once, and in many different forms and forums.  We talk to more people, and different ones, with experiences different from our own.  But has technology changed the content of our communications? And has the level of quality changed?

Cultural intermediaries then…

I read a statement about culture in an article for a class a few years ago, and it has stayed vividly in my memory. The author was Pierre Bourdieu, an important sociologist and thinker from the past century, and he was discussing cultural intermediaries, those who fit between “legitimate” culture and mass-produced culture, the popularizers of the world. He wrote in 1984 but his perspective seemed much older: he described the petit bourgeoisie and their love of what he calls the “minor forms of legitimate culture” such as “light operas, science programmes, [and] poetry readings.” The intermediaries give life to dry institutional competence, as he puts it, but as presenters are devoid of any intrinsic value in and of themselves. They instead stage moderate cultural revolutions by canonizing “not-yet-legitimate arts” and masquerading as experts by surrounding themselves with a veneer of cultural authority in the form of (and this is worth quoting in full) “Academician contributors to painless history magazines, Sorbonne professors debating on TV, Menuhins gracing ‘quality’ variety shows.” (I had to look up Menuhin also; he was considered one of the twentieth century’s best violinists.) I like to think of this as giving street cred to high art, and vice versa.

…and now

I think of this passage often. I see its effects when I read web pages dedicated to collecting strange maps or entertainment blogs covering pop culture. I see it when I watch American Idol and note how it attempts to associate itself with the new “legitimate” musical culture (producers like Quincy Jones, judges like Elton John, and YES!, performers like George Michael). I see it when I watch YouTube videos or ze frank’s peculiar brand of comedy. It is exactly what Bourdieu means: everywhere today, individuals without the “standard cultural credentials” (whatever those may be) have essentially cornered the market on some small area of life in which there is great popular interest. (Interestingly, it is often themselves – think of most Internet memes and how they can come out of nowhere from an individual’s particular fancy writ large.) I read the writers’ comments about American Idol and Survivor on EW fairly religiously, all the while thinking that it is crazy that there are individuals out there whose livelihood is earned acerbically describing the proceedings of a variety show to an audience that mostly includes people who watched it the night before. How did this happen? And at least their subjects are real people: there is also extensive discussion about TV dramas, and comedies, and everything in between.

And what discussion of the canonization and genre-ization of life would be complete without discussing Wikipedia? Wikipedia is founded upon the classification and summarization of life’s minutiae, things like characters in popular movies, or levels in video games, or contestants on reality television shows. Approximately 45% of its content is Culture & Arts, or Biographies & Persons. (1% is Thought & Philosophy.) I’m guessing most of that is current pop culture. In order to gain entry, a topic must be “notable,” that is, it must have “received significant coverage in secondary reliable sources (i.e., mainstream media or major academic journals) that are independent of the subject of the topic.”  Consider: this is the veneer of cultural “legitimacy” that Bourdieu speaks of, this association with longstanding cultural pillars like the established news media. The irony is that old media are dying, and Wikipedia grows every minute. It has become a cultural compass in its own right.

Cultural legitimacy in the 21st century

Which leads me to ask what “important” and “legitimate” means today. Has technology changed the content of communication after all? Does it, by its nature as transient and inclusive, privilege the popular, mass-produced, lowbrow culture? And if so, is that bad? Are certain types of culture intrinsically better or more valuable than others? Bourdieu would likely say “yes,” in that his discussions of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” culture included an inherent value judgment. The debate rises to new levels of importance – and not just culturally, but politically – with so much more “out there” and accessible. Viewers can pick and choose what elements of culture they pay attention to, essentially filtering out all viewpoints that do not converge with their own. (The Atlantic ran a fascinating article on the shift to new media and how it has affected politics last month – check it out if you have a chance.)

But who are the culture brokers who determine what culture is good or bad, highbrow or lowbrow, worthy or not worthy of attention?

It’s relevant and interesting to me because posthistorical turns 1 month old today.  And I look at the most popular posts sometimes on the WordPress Dashboard and sigh that they are always about things like “the truth about Nicole Richie’s engagement ring,” or a “LOST exclusive” or a change in the top 24 of American Idol (full disclosure: I clicked on that one). There is no person deciding what is most popular in and around WordPress. Numbers are. Undoubtedly, because of today’s technology, culture is more democratized than ever before. And there are many, many more intermediaries than ever before because technology has played upon how fractured our culture can be. There are more and more people out there who don’t want to be mere consumers of information and culture, but producers of it as well. Many more people are finding their voices than ever before, and creating new forums to talk about culture. I am one of these people, and I love being able to be one.

New technology has made it easier to become a cultural intermediary, and in doing so has legitimized – at least in part – hundreds of new forms of culture. The content has indeed changed – significantly. It has caused a revolutionary shift in cultural studies as well, and changed the lenses through which we see and categorize the world for the purposes of analysis.

So who are the cultural intermediaries of the twenty-first century? Perhaps we might call them “aggregators,” either in their automated forms, or human ones. They are those who collect seemingly disparate bits of data and combine them into a coherent and meaningful whole.  I believe that all this technology makes cultural intermediaries – the trusted, popular, consistently competent ones – more important than ever. Career counsellors and management thinkers in the “information age” are constantly pointing out that with all of the information being thrown at us, the need increases for those who can rise above it all and provide an intelligent layer of analysis to help others sift through it and realize what is important.

So my focus as I move forward in life and with this blog is going to be to provide a lens through which disparate things make sense and are interesting. Wish me luck – and stay tuned!

I’m interested in hearing from you! Are you a cultural intermediary? If so, how do you see your role? Who do you think are the most significant cultural intermediaries of this new century? And what is “legitimate” culture now? Does it still exist?


Computers Are Making Us A Society of Elephants – But Should We Be More Like Goldfish?

February 11, 2010

What would it mean to us if we remembered everything? Terrible things, apparently.

There’s a new book out that’s concerned with data storage and the importance of teaching computers how to “forget” by deleting information. The author, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, identifies four factors that have led to unprecedented amounts of data being stored indefinitely: digitization, cheap storage, easy retrieval, and global reach. Is all of this information a good thing? No, argues Mayer-Schönberger, on the grounds that it will cause humans to pay their whole lives for past mistakes because they will never be erased by the passage of time and natural process of forgetting. In his words, we will have “a future that is forever unforgiving because it is unforgetting.”

The book’s thesis is that it is better to forget some things, so we are able to filter through what is actually important in order to draw conclusions at a higher level of analysis. On a personal level, this makes complete sense: being mired in the details can negatively alter one’s perspective and possibly render one unable to function. But what does it mean when applied to a society, or a discipline? Isn’t society, through its historians, in need of remembering as much of the past as possible? If not, what are the limits to what societies should remember?

In many ways, the effect that increased quantities information has had and no doubt will have on history as a practice and a profession is immense. Being able to store data indefinitely with significantly less risk of primary sources being destroyed will exponentially increase the number of sources from which we draw conclusions. Consequently, it will no doubt change the tone of debates historians have about whether one can ever truly know the “facts” of the past, or discover what “really happened.” (NB: I put these expressions in quotes because I am among those who believe that our idea of what is a fact and what happened changes as society changes, and that history is not an objective thing that we can ever know, but rather an idea that we hold.) More information will also radically alter who and how many people have access to primary documents. The “global reach” factor was certainly instrumental in helping me to complete my MA thesis, for example, which was sourced almost entirely through the online collections of universities in different countries. Technology may even, in time, displace the geographical and archival advantages of universities altogether. Why go to Oxford for the Bodleian Library when you might access all of its information sitting at home in rural Missouri? Democratizing a discipline is never a bad thing.

So why should we forego any of this in favour of forgetting? Well, for one, I suspect that societies may suffer from information overload just as surely as individuals. With the past documented more richly than ever before, events that occur now will face a far greater degree of scrutiny than has previously been known. Are we then destined to drown in the details and drift toward paralysis by analysis?

I also worry about the effect of yet more data concerning the minutiae of life. History as an academic discipline is already falling victim to the dangers of over-specialization (for proof of this, check out the title of any history Ph.D. student’s dissertation. any one. you’ll enjoy yourself). More technological advances will only further the trend.

So where does that leave us? My sense is that we as a society will always want more history because as individuals we will always be curious about where we come from and where we might go. Perhaps humans will evolve and be able to process much more information, and perhaps the march of time will change the discipline of history altogether. For now I’ll note with a true sense of irony that one day I’m sure I’ll look back on this post (which will no doubt be cached somewhere, even if this blog no longer exists) and hopefully be able to ascertain its proper place in the minutiae of my life!

What do you think is the role of historians and other students of the past? Is it up to us to maintain (establish?) an acceptable level of depth/breadth in our analysis to avoid becoming irrelevant? As the tellers of stories that influence how others think about where we’ve come from, is it also our role to limit their perspectives? Let me know your thoughts.