April 24, 2015
1901 - 1945
What Was Canadian Literature?
"New distance permits new questions. What was Canadian literature? How did it work? What did it mean? And what does it continue to mean for those of us who are Canadian and who write?"
Stephen Marche on the Decline and Fall of a National Experiment
2014 was a year of deaths and victories for Canadian literature. Alice Munro accepted the Nobel Prize for literature and promptly retired. Mavis Gallant left her Canadian body in Montparnasse cemetery, triumphantly empty of stories. A seventy-fifth birthday party for Margaret Atwood at the Four Seasons came complete with a guard of forty authors to toast her. In 2014 as well, the Canada Council hosted a National Forum on the Literary Arts, intended to address the future of literature in Canada, which broke down into “a 250-person choir in simultaneous competition to be the lone soloist” and “nothing short of a total goddamn clusterfuck,” in the memorable phrasing of Pasha Malla. It was a year with a sense of an ending, at least for Canadian literature._______________________
Writing in Canada meanwhile continued its blessed existence. Anyone who whines about being a writer in Canada today needs a history lesson and a long vacation. It’s not just the peace and prosperity which we take so utterly for granted. Before the 1960s, Northrop Frye could describe the entire literary production of the country in a few pages in annual reports for the University of Toronto magazine, and sometimes his conclusions were as terse as “this is clearly not a banner year for Canadian poetry.”
There is no question that we are living in a great time to be a Canadian writer, perhaps the best ever. But at the same time the sense of writing as a national project is stuttering to its final end.
There is no question that we are living in a great time to be a Canadian writer, perhaps the best ever. But at the same time the sense of writing as a national project is stuttering to its final end. There is one major Canadian-owned publisher still standing, Anansi; even McClelland and Stewart belongs to the Germans. The CBC, the handmaiden to Canadian literature, is being dissolved in front of our eyes. And the academic study of Canadian literature, like all the humanities, continues its steady decline into underfunded gerontocracy. The question of “national identity” is an antique one; literary nationalism is something your grandparents did, like macramé. American Psycho or American Pastoral brandish their connection to their home country; here, any such connection is best avoided—and not just because you limit your market. Canadian writers are happy to say they’re from Canada; they just don’t want to write about what it might mean. Canadian literature, in the sense of a literature shaped by the Canadian nation and shaping the nation, is over.
from the series O Mapa, 2013.
Emi Anrakuji: Mapping Embodiment
What we see here is a striking confirmation of Jerry Thompson’s recent claim that the importance of photography has much to do with epistemology, with its revelation of how we know the world. Elaborating a point made by the 19th-century photographer, William Henry Fox Talbot, Thompson emphasizes that photography gives us “nothing less than a way of knowing the world that transcends our educations, our opinions, our intentions, hopes, and desires—in a word, our subjectivity. Anrakuji’s work reveals a world that includes subjectivity but is neither shaped by nor defined by the human subject.
In this respect, at least, Anrakuji is effectively in dialogue with Takuma Nakahira, who argued as early as 1973 that contemporary history has shown human beings to have no special place in the world, so that “our means of expression at this point in time should discard ‘the image,’ and address the world as it is, and rightly position the thing as the thing and myself as myself in this world. To do so, all humanizing or emotionalizing of the world according to the self must be rejected.” In a later essay, “Self-Change in the Act of Shooting,” Nakahira would insist that “when I encounter afresh the world of reality, my own self-consciousness is dismantled; the act of rebuilding the consciousness has been imposed on me endlessly. That, in a way, has been my fate as a photographer.” This fate of rebuilding a dismantled subjectivity, I now want to suggest, also governs the work of Emi Anrakuji.
Are Animals People?
There are at least three type of personhood: legal personhood, metaphysical personhood and moral personhood. Legal personhood is the easiest of the three. While it would seem reasonable to expect some sort of rational foundation for claims of legal personhood, it is really just a matter of how the relevant laws define “personhood.” For example, in the United States corporations are people while animals and fetuses are not. There have been numerous attempts by opponents of abortion to give fetuses the status of legal persons. There have even been some attempts to make animals into legal persons.
Since corporations are legal persons, it hardly seems absurd to make animals into legal people. After all, higher animals are certainly closer to human persons than are corporate persons. These animals can think, feel and suffer—things that actual people do but corporate people cannot. So, if it is not absurd for Hobby Lobby to be a legal person, it is not absurd for my husky to be a legal person. Or perhaps I should just incorporate my husky and thus create a person.
It could be countered that although animals do have qualities that make them worthy of legal protection, there is no need to make them into legal persons. After all, this would create numerous problems. For example, if animals were legal people, they could no longer be owned, bought or sold. Because, with the inconsistent exception of corporate people, people cannot be legally bought, sold or owned.
Since I am a philosopher rather than a lawyer, my own view is that legal personhood should rest on moral or metaphysical personhood. I will leave the legal bickering to the lawyers, since that is what they are paid to do.
via Leon Niemoczynski
d. April 24, 1976
Death and Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi
The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi defies interpretation. This is an inextricable part of the beauty and power of his work. The text – by which I mean the “Inner Chapters” of the text traditionally attributed to him, the authentic core of the book – is incomprehensible as a whole. It consists of shards, in a distinctive voice – a voice distinctive enough that its absence is plain in most or all of the “Outer” and “Miscellaneous” Chapters, and which I will treat as the voice of a single author. Despite repeating imagery, ideas, style, and tone, these shards cannot be pieced together into a self-consistent philosophy. This lack of self-consistency is a positive feature of Zhuangzi. It is part of what makes him the great and unusual philosopher he is, defying reduction and summary._______________________
One idea that seems to shine through the Inner Chapters, especially Chapter 2, is the inadequacy of philosophical theorizing. Words, Zhuangzi suggests, lack fixed meanings, distinctions fail, and well-intentioned philosophical efforts end up collapsing into logical paradoxes and the conflicting rights and wrongs of the Confucians and the Mohists (esp. p. 11-12).
If Zhuangzi does indeed think that philosophical theorizing is always inadequate to capture the complexity of the world, or at least always inadequate in our small human hands, then he might not wish to put together a text that advances a single philosophical theory. He might choose, instead, to philosophize in a fragmented, shard-like way, expressing a variety of different, conflicting perspectives on the world – perspectives that need not fit together as a coherent whole. He might wish to frustrate, rather than encourage, our attempts to make neat sense of him, inviting us to mature as philosophers not by discovering the proper set of right and wrong views, but rather by offering us his hand as he takes his smiling plunge into wonder and doubt.
That delightfully inconsistent Zhuangzi is the one I love – the Zhuangzi who openly shares his shifting ideas and confusions, rather than the Zhuangzi that most others seem to see, who has some stable, consistent theory underneath that for some reason he chooses not to display in plain language on the surface of the text.
April 23, 2015
d. April 22, 1984
From the Poplars
from From The Poplars
endowed by forces of nature, forces such as forest fire
darkened save the plumed out stack
of cell walls end-to-end fibre forms
under the niddle of machine
streaming silver-blue roofs
trains below trains above
upper tacking texture lines
cracked floor of a dry river tracks
trace along side
idyllic sense of security
picking berries on the side f the road; an assertion of sovereignty
dead tree standing sunned and whipped dry
firewood lichen curls kindle
tree taken downtown
across forest floor to blackened pit
battle, an extreme form of dialogue
pain embraced by a loud river
ideality acts public out of order
the mill turns around of its own free will
Review of Cecily Nicholson’s From The Poplars
Leaves, Frost, Stump
'Active solidarity with directly impacted communities'
A conversation with Cecily Nicholson
For the text to be grounded it necessarily contains my everyday life, including paid work and organizing. I prefer poetry that documents, witnesses, reveals structure, talks back and raises questions in ways that are not closed or irrelevant to my friends, family, allies. I’ve learned to reference cultural production with a specific interest in its process and public, and not simply the object/outcome. I relate best to work being produced under hard conditions and in active solidarity with directly impacted communities. If my poetry is relevant to the work of organizing then that’s a fortunate convergence.
Poetry is necessary work for me – I don’t wish for it to be easily absorbed. The use of the cultural front in furthering causes of capital, colonialism and ultimately violence and poverty is difficult to get out from under. This was evident in the olympic moment. The poetry collective I work with are all organizers in different areas. We formed in anticipation of the olympics and choose to publish work that was anonymous and felt free to be moderately (and justly) seditious. In support of various actions we performed individually and collectively. At that time the deliberate influx of capital into arts production was glossing civic and national identity – this happening prior to a period of wider retrenchment of arts funding – the backdrop being long decades of dismantling and disregarding social supports. These issues are at play in the processes of gentrification that continue to be resisted in the downtown eastside of Vancouver and elsewhere.
Relative to the downtown eastside I have a lot of privilege, most significantly as a paid worker, over the years. Now the area is being dominantly constructed as an arts district, so the problematic of cultural capital and producing work from this location is even more fraught. Acknowledging this, Triage is my best attempt so far to speak alongside a community of women in struggle – who are politically astute, resilient organizers and active cultural producers in ways that refuse to be co-opted. My work at DEWC enters into Triage as a jumbled series of narratives and samplings. I wrestle with the language of bureaucracy. In “SERVICE” I consider migration into the core and the daily grind of the service industry in a place that also cares for movements and uprising.
Pale/ontology: The Dinosaurian Critique of Philosophy
The thing about the repressed is that it always does come back. It’s in a different form, but no number of asteroid impacts can blot out the central law of the psyche. The primal analytic scene is this: a patient, squirming on a couch, saying this and that thing about the problems in her life, trying to avoid the central issue in a constant swerving series of linguistic loops, unavoidably centripetal — suddenly she seizes up. A cough. One hand darts into the air, seized, contorted; already the polished and manicured nails are looking somehow claw-like. When she tries to speak again her mouth opens into a long slit running to the corners of her jaw, revealing the rows of tiny sharp teeth behind. Her face lengthens to a snouty point, her hair frills into soft downy feathers, her ankle travels halfway up her leg. There’s a dinosaur on the couch. Then it speaks — something ultimately quite banal about its parents or its childhood; the point is that it’s something ancestral and inhuman, from the old dark wordless prehistory of the mind. Memory is everywhere a form of bioengineering; the bringing back of a dinosaur.
Faulkner understood it: The past is never dead. It’s not even past. Reintroducing the dinosaurs isn’t a matter of temporal but spatial rearrangement. ...
Philosophers don’t want to consider dinosaurs because in any epistemology or ontology that follows Kant in featuring a distinction between human experience and the non-human world, dinosaurs represent the ultimate point of the non-human world’s unknowability. God is an indeterminate quantity; the real Absolute Other is twenty-three meters from end to end, with broad flat teeth for slicing up vegetable matter and a long tapering tail that draws lazy circles in the heavy Tithonian air. Levinas and Derrida speak of the unfathomable void of an animal’s eyes, and in a way they’re right; there’s sometimes something briefly terrifying in there. But it’s only a punctum, a sudden pin-prick: we know animals, we see them in the park, we grew up with them in fables and nursery stories. It’s a wound that quickly heals.
Dinosaurs are too big to fit in any of our conceptual categories. If we’re to conceive of a noumenon, a real world as it really is, outside our experience, the previous existence of dinosaurs on the earth is the most important single fact about that world. They stand for the sheer unimportance of human subjectivity: reality was around for millions of years before we arrived to ponder its nature, and it did fine; even without a human subject to give meaning to its objectivity it was still full of life and danger. In this light, the strange refusal to talk about dinosaurs is so pervasive and so consistent that it can only be read as a neurotic symptom. If we don’t discuss them, maybe they won’t come back to claw our fragile distinction from the world of objects into shreds. It’s not just our finely wrought society that the dinosaurs threaten; it’s the idea that human subjectivities and the world beyond them can face each other as two equal halves, evenly matched. It’s the fantasy of an inert world, one without gargantuan teeth. It’s the idea that humans are subjects, always subjects, and always humans.
Rushing Water, Merced River
April 21, 2015
Irma Haselberger's Photostream
Precariousness, Literature, and the Humanities Today
A Garden of Wandering: A Response to Simon During
Eileen A. Joy
Of necessity, ‘academic freedom’ requires peripatetic practices—we can’t be bound any longer to this or that (institutional) place and its increasingly top--down protocols, in terms of developing certain knowledge practices, especially at a time when institutions of higher learning are becoming more and more inhospitable, for faculty and students alike. For many, you just can’t live here any more (perhaps you’ve already been shut out in advance, with graduate degree in hand, massive amounts of debt, and no job), and it’s time to depart, taking this valuable work with us like so many contraband diamonds, while insisting that we will now be ‘rooted in the absence of place’ . It may thus be time to decentralize the Humanities through various para--academic practices, such as has already been accomplished via the Open Access (OA) movement, for example. Here, I take to heart During’s advice to the Humanities to attune and adapt itself to ‘an emergent global social order whose conditions are not under our control’ and to the ‘social and metaphysical precariousness’ that emerges therefrom, but not through literary--historical analysis of that situation only. Rather, I would urge us to actually inhabit that precariousness more fully—to get Outside, stand in the rain, and see what can be done there. I myself resigned a tenured professorship in 2013 in order to run punctum books and the BABEL Working Group full--time—both of these entities exist to work on new modes for knowledge creation, exchange, and dissemination, as well as to ‘build shelters for intellectual vagabonds,’ both within and beyond the University proper. It’s about those of us within the Humanities perhaps attending to things on more structural levels and devoting more of our time to developing new spaces within which the Humanities might flourish in unexpected (and non--traditional) ways, which is different than continuing to either defend or reboot what we do in here.
So, power has left the streets and buildings and become nomadic (and maybe even post--human), and we—the critics? the interpreters?—may also need to depart, to disappear into the ether, while also squatting in the abandoned real estate (such as the University ), in order to engage in tactical maneuvers that would not amount to critique as much as to creative intervention, even creative scrambling, of the sort discussed by Rita Raley in her book Tactical Media. Here, criticism would become (or morph into) tactical disruptions of ‘dominant semiotic regimes’ as well as ‘the temporary creation of a situation in which signs, messages, and narratives are set into play and critical thinking becomes possible’—especially important in a post-- industrial era where the ‘field of the symbolic’ has become a ‘primary site of power’ (Raley 6).
Personally, I work on behalf of Derrida’s ‘university without condition,’ which Derrida believed would ‘remain an ultimate place of critical resistance—and more than critical—to all the powers of dogmatic and unjust appropriation,’ and which has special safekeeping by way of the Humanities, entailing the ‘principal right to say everything, whether it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it’. As the University has become more and more inhospitable to the sorts of non-- calculable events of learning ‘without condition,’ we must make our way elsewhere, cultivating alternative and radicant Gardens of Thought.
Spring Time in the Dust Bowl
Both roadway and the lone individual are directed toward the vanishing point of the photograph: a place in this image of pure obliteration. Sight, distinction, every separate thing is consumed by the storm, converted into total meaninglessness like a last, uniform expanse of cosmic dust at the far end of time. Against the hubris that comes with building beautiful structures and complex civilizations, we see instead a trajectory toward a common dissolution.
This photograph doesn’t tell us anything important that we don’t know, but it does provide the means to think about what we would rather ignore. When it comes to living on this planet, just who are we kidding, and what do we think will save us? There have been dust storms for a very long time, and they have buried more than one civilization, but now the stakes are higher still. Human beings are able to alter the climate, but not control it. What had been local problems or long term patterns can be tipped into catastrophic changes. And if hope springs eternal, then there will be reason to believe that one day we’ll all be there, walking along a beautifully engineered roadway into oblivion.
Rockaway Beach with Pier
Alfred Henry Maurer
b. April 21, 1868
A deeper look into In a Station of the Metro
The minor vogue and rapid extinction of Imagism, a movement whose influence we still feel, has been hashed over by literary critics for a century. Its rehearsal here is merely to bring the poem into focus within the slow progress toward the densities of language, the images like copperplate engraving, that made Pound Pound.
“In a Station of the Metro” is the rare instance of a poem whose drafts, had they survived, might retain the fossil traces of a complete change of manner, from gaslit poeticism to the world of electric lighting and underground rail. “Contemporania” showed Pound’s first acquaintance with the modern age, with the deft gliding of registers, the slither between centuries of diction, that made virtue of vice: “Dawn enters with little feet/ like a gilded Pavlova,” “Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall/ She walks by the railing of a path in Kensington Gardens,” “Go to the bourgeoise who is dying of her ennuis,/ Go to the women in suburbs.” (In American poetry, it has never hurt to knock the suburbs.) His embrace of the modern is not a rupture with the past (there is antiquarian fussiness enough), but an acknowledgment that the past underlies the present, that present and past live in sharp and troubled relation. “In a Station of the Metro” is the final poem of the group.
anenomes in a Cornish window
Of the “three grades of evil . . . in the queer world of verbal transmigration,” Nabokov places vernacularism at the lowest circle of Hell. “The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public.” In another place, he says that “A schoolboy’s boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less” than work that attempts to create a more “readable” version than the original. Since this column explores, and indeed celebrates versions that are wildly discrepant from the original, we should perhaps forget Nabokov’s contempt, and embrace the vernacularist translator—even espousing the No Fear Shakespeare series and its ilk as a harbinger of fearless literary experimentation to come, in its promise to translate the works of Shakespeare into “the kind of English people actually speak today.”
We need not, however, perhaps go that far. "How many poetic works, reduced to prose, that is, to their simple meaning, become literally nonexistent! They are anatomical specimens, dead birds!" Paul Valéry's plaint echoes the concerns of Joan Retallack; if the popularity of her (much mistranslated) “poethics” is any indication, many are still invested, as was Benjamin, in keeping the poetic “uncommunicative,” or at least formally and syntactically difficult, eluding easy definition. And this would imply a kind constant work of translation at the very core of any poetic project. “In times of rampant fundamentalism complex thought is a political act. . . . the necessarily inefficient, methodically haphazard inquiry characteristic of actually living with ideas.” In other words, egghead shaming and hippy punching get you easy points amongst literary conservatives and presumed populists alike, but that doesn’t make it right (although it does make it kind of right-wing).
However, we could say that there is a brand of translator who takes on the intralingual warping of complexities into “plain speaking,” or navigates the complexity of the plain, as a kind of conceptual challenge.