Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Canadian Epic

Since tomorrow is Canada Day, I'm going to muse a little about what sort of narrative art would best represent this country. I do this because I have a sense that there is no form of art which could thoroughly tackle the problem of Canada.

Last year, I wrote how I gave some thought to what a Canadian epic would look like, and that I hadn't gotten very far. You can see that in Take 5. I thought about the kinds of things one would want to include, somehow: maple leaves, maple syrup, fields of corn, mountains and other quintessential Canadian landscapes, beavers, moose, Tim Horton's coffee, hockey, polar bears... (I say this with my tongue partly in my cheek.) Since then I have learned a bit more about Canada and a bit more about epics and I see that there is a problem. There cannot be a Canadian epic.

A national epic, properly understood, has a unified sense of nation. That is, The Aenead offers a sense of Rome as a nation; The Faerie Queene offers what it means to be English. Not all epics are national; Paradise Lost is a Christian epic, giving a unified and complete sense of Milton's idea of Christendom. I suggest elsewhere that One River (Wade Davis) could be considered to be an ethnobotanical epic. Regardless, whatever it represents, an epic is supposed to embody and represent the ethic and sensibility of that group. It generates or at least displays a coherent identity. If that group has disparate parts, it unifies them. It ties them all in together. It exudes Englishness, Romanness, Christianness, ethnobotanistness. (There is more to an epic than this. Wikipedia gives an OK account of it. If you're interested, it's a very cool form. I'm sure there are articles you can get from an academic library which would discuss it in greater depth.)

Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian language theorist working in the 1920s, goes further. An epic (or anything written with an epic sensibility) has a single language. In his formulation, a language embodies the social position and worldview of that speaker. He doesn't hear mean the distinction between French, Russian, English, Latin, etc. "Language," rather, refers to smaller groupings. Think, for instance, of the language used by politicians in speeches as a language, or the language of legal documents, or the language of Catholic sermons, or of Evangelical sermons, or of atheist bloggers, or of daycare workers when speaking to children, or of "storytelling voice", or of flirtation, or of plumbers talking about their trade, or of nineteen-year-olds texting one another. Each of these has its own patterns; in each of these, the same word may have different meanings (think, for instance, of what "reasonable" might mean in each of these languages, or whether that word could even be said in all of them). Each also, therefore, represents a different set of relationships between words and ideas and people. That is, each represents a different wordview. The epic is written in a single language. If other languages appear, they appear as objects that the author is presenting, not positions the author is adopting.

Canada is too diverse for an epic to work. More than this, we are self-consciously diverse. The political vision of a unified Canada might suggest that we could rally under multiculturalism--in fact, that often is the political vision of Canada--but unfortunately we cannot easily do this. If we were to honestly and fairly incorporate different people into the Canadian epic, we'd have a problem. Many of the First Nations, Inuit, Asian immigrated, Eastern European immigrated, and African immigrated people would have a problem with the sort of Canadian narrative offered. They (rightly) have problems with the existing narrative offered. It would be all but impossible to find a story which could incorporate all of their voices. A story that could would lose it's unity; it would lose any sense that there is one way to be Canadian. That there is such a thing as Canadianness.

Further, Canadian regionalism gets in the way. How does one reconcile Vancouver, for instance, with Ontario? Many people in Vancouver rebel against the idea that Ottawa speaks for Canada; at least, if Ottawa speaks for Canada, it certainly doesn't speak for Vancouver. In many ways, Vancouver feels more aligned with Seattle and Hong Kong than with the rest of Canada. And what of Quebec? What of Newfoundland? What of Nunavut? Each has its own reason for feeling alienated from a sense of unified Canadian identity, either because they stick so fiercely to their own culture (Quebec), or because they feel that the federal government's policies are deliberately harmful to their economy (Newfoundland), or because their government, ethnic constitution, and basic living conditions are so fundamentally different from the rest of the country's (Nunavut). Each province and territory has a unique political climate, physical and vegetative landscape, occupational environment, music scene, colonial history, and (often) accent and vocabulary.

And, unlike the United States, we haven't mythologized the founding of our country. We don't speak of principles on which our Constitution is based, or of the intentions of Founding Fathers, or of some vague sense of democratic ethics synonymous with our country's name. We don't take ourselves to be representative of freedom or democracy or human rights (though we have as good a claim to be so as the United States does).

Maybe this is why things like maple syrup, polar bears, beavers, moose, the "Canadian landscape," and hockey are Canadian symbols: they're blank, they're less charged (though hockey is becoming a problem), they're unrelated to the actual things Canadians live with and face. But for the same reason, they can't represent us in any meaningful way. And, anyway, not even something like winter can be taken as universal. A friend from Vancouver has said to me that he's never experienced a so-called "Canadian" winter and he's lived here most of his life. And it's not as though Canada's the only place to get winter. Alaska has a winter, as do Russia and the Scandinavian countries.

So Bakhtin's sense of a novel might work better. The novel is structured around heteroglossia, the juxtaposition of voices. Good examples of heteroglossia in English are Sterne, Dickens, and Austen. Even the authoral language is seen from the viewpoint of secondary languages; language which is parodied nonetheless resists parody, exists in its own right and must be taken as a self-contained language. (Not all things we call novels today fit in this definition. Most are much more unitary, more like epics.) Perhaps, then, there can be a Canadian novel, but it would nonetheless not have the sense of unified identity. Rather, it would at best suggest multiple, contradicting ways of being Canadian. The Great Canadian Novel cannot really be Greatly Canadian because it can never be finished. That, in fact, would be the only essentially Canadian thing about it; the disagreeing voices would multiply beyond the possibility of representation.

And so over the course of the last year I have come to recognize that writing the Canadian would not be hard but rather impossible. Of course all groups have much internal dissent, and one wonders how many sixteenth century English readers rebelled against Spenser's sense of the English, or how many seventeenth century readers rebelled against Milton's sense of the Christian. (I'd say "a lot" for the latter.) But there was at least a sense that the authors could fool themselves into thinking they'd done it. Such self-delusion would be much more difficult for Canada at this time. Perhaps it would be possible in Ottawa or in an Ontario public school, where a sense of Canadian identity is much more fierce. But if, like me, you've travelled a bit more of the country, spoken to more of the people in it, studied more of its history, you'll start to see that it can't be done.

No. If I want to write an epic, it can't be a nationalist one. But I can still write a Canadian [genre], I suppose, so long as its incompleteness is highlighted.

(And maybe I can still write an epic, but one for a different kind of category. A literary analytical epic, for instance? A bookworm epic? An Anglican universalist epic?)

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Problem of the Augmented Body

or, What is our body? part 3

I return to this series somewhat more hesitant about it than when I began. Much of the reason there has been such a gap between instalments is that I realized I had little to say. Or, alternately, that what I had to say was not very well considered. In my discipline, literary analysis, there is a lot of discussion of bodies; how we relate to them, how they are represented, how they interact, and what they are. So when I say that I know nothing much about them, I do so in a field in which theorizing about bodies is taken very seriously and is done a great deal. Perhaps this in part explains my trepidation to proceed.

But proceed I will, because I still feel as though I can say something that will be new at least to some people, maybe even ones that will read my blog (especially if Leah continues giving it publicity). What I can perhaps offer is a sense of how the more postmodern, English department-style of thinking about things can impact such a question. I think I’d just like to bracket this post off as somewhat provisional, subject to revision. Or, even better, maybe we should think of it as a starting point for further inquiry.

And don’t worry. I will have a lot more to say, with more confidence, later in the post, once we move away from this issue of raw bodies.

Let’s catch up on the ground we’ve covered here. In my first post I considered a very biological, organic, cellular, genetic sense of body: bodies are made of continuous living tissue, distinct from one another based on disconnect. I used a number of case studies to indicate how this conception must fail. Continuous living tissue is not sufficient to any definition of a body, and I mean this in more than one sense: that which defines one body from another is not continuous living tissue. But I have not ruled out that it might be necessary. That is, it might be one component of a more complex picture.

In my second post I considered an instrumental sense of body: my body is that which I have motor control over. I used a number of case studies to indicate that this cannot be a necessary definition of body. There are things I do not have motor control over (my teeth, my heart) which are my body. I want to clarify, though, that I do not mean to say that instrumentality is not sufficient to being part of my body: perhaps motor control over something is enough to make it my body.

It cannot be the case that continuous living tissue is necessary but not sufficient and motor control is sufficient but not necessary because there is at least one instance in which people have motor control over an object but do not have a continuous living tissue connection. That instance is possession of a prosthetic limb. (Which is the issue that sparked the whole controversy over at Unequally Yoked.)

So let’s get some examples. We have limbs which replace typical human appendages and have some motor function determined by synapses. This is a fairly commonplace example and is fairly easily conceived. While you might from the outset disagree, I think most of us could at least understand why a person with a prosthetic might consider it part of his or her body: it replaces a part of the body which is formerly there. If you replace a computer component with a new one, that new one is now part of the computer. If you replace a body component with another one, we could analogously consider it part of the body. This breaks down somewhat when you realize that prosthetics are not necessarily replacements: they are sometimes function where a person did not already have a limb or they sometimes offer functions which the “original” limb did not have. However, I think it’s a good place to start thinking about prosthetics. We could also say that the addition of a new periphery becomes part of the computer when added even if it does not replace anything that formerly existed there. If you would consider a transplanted heart as now part of the new owner’s body, I think I can expect the onus to be on you to explain how a non-organic heart would be any different. (If you wouldn’t consider the transplanted heart to be part of the new owner’s body, I would like to hear you explain why. The idea is alien to me.)

Let’s move in another direction for a moment. Let’s consider the Emotiv EPOC, a console device which allows you to play the video game simply with your mind. You wear a device on your head and, after a calibration process, it lets you move characters around on the screen with your thoughts. It does this by reading your brain waves. I must admit that I am personally less comfortable taking the characters on the screen to be part of my body. I must also admit that I would be less comfortable taking distant objects also moved only by synapse/circuitry to be part of my own body. To suggest that a remote control car is “me” because I can move it with my mind seems deeply problematic. That such a situation isn’t unimaginable given the EPOC indicates that we must take it seriously.
(And to forestall any complaints that this is not the same as a prosthetic, I’ll point out that some prosthetics operate on this technology and not through nerve-circuit interface.)

The point I see being appropriate here is that the Emotiv is not part of my body because I do not identify with it. That is, I specifically disagree with the claim that identification is not relevant to the conversation. Certainly it is not sufficient: no matter how badly I may identify with your body, that does not mean it is part of my body. But I think it is a component of what is going on. The physical attachment of a prosthetic encourages the owner to define it as part of her body; even when removed, in fact, it may still be considered part of her body due to her identification with it over time. Motor control also plays a role in this, of course; sensory feedback would play even more, and is perhaps part of why the EPOC, lacking as it does in tactile response, does not have the same identification.

But I am merely asserting that identification is relevant. I cannot, actually, back that up, but for two points which might be suggestive. The first is that many people with prosthetics say that those prosthetics are part of their body. While this doesn’t prove anything, I want to point out that we as a society have done a pretty bad job of listening seriously to minority groups. Once we do start listening, we often learn a surprising number of things from them. So maybe listening would be a good idea in this case; to simply say that they are wrong because they go against our own predetermined ideas is not a good idea politically, rhetorically, or epistemologically. The second point is also the destination of this post:

My opinion, as it stands and for whatever it’s worth, is that there is no way of determining, definitively, what a body is or who it belongs to. What we have instead are a number of competing ideas that almost work but that always, somewhere, break down. In the previous instalment I said that if we want a universal definition, it must apply to all bodies. Since I do not think we can find a definition that does apply to all bodies, then we cannot have a universal definition. I want to suggest, in fact, that we not only have no way of writing such a definition, but that the category of a discrete body might not exist outside of our idea of it anyway. There are not discrete bodies.

However, it is important that we act as if there are. (Imagine what rape would look like in a society which did not recognize discrete bodies.) But this doesn’t mean that we pick a definition of body and stick to it regardless of the consequences. Instead I suggest we ride definitions as far as they go until they break down. When they break down, we look around, see what the issue is, and draft a new definition that we can use until it stops working. What becomes crucial, then, is to listen very closely to what the people with those exceptional bodies are saying, because they’re the ones who have the best insight into what a body is in that situation. (And so I circle back to my first suggestion.)

So, to be clear: I would say that if people with prosthetics define body such that that prosthetic is part of their body, then it is part of their body. However, how we define bodies is not so simple because it must take into account the society we live in. I will address this a forthcoming section. In the meantime, I will spend a few instalments dealing with the opposite half of the dualist equation: the mind.

7 Quick Takes (77)

1. The folks and I went to Ontario to see my brother graduate. If you are a reader in Ontario and you are wondering why I didn't visit, it's because my schedule was very full. We visited family and friends of the family. We ran some errands. We poked around Stratford, the city where I went to high school.

2. For my birthday, my brother gave me a painting, among other things. You can see it here. It is entitled Calliphoridae Megacephala (I assume). I think you'd have to be in our family or a close friend to fully understand why this is a real present.

3. We also learned about Justin Bieber. You see, The Biebs hails from Stratford, Ontario, my maternal homeland. We even went to the same high school, albiet not at the same time. It was a little odd to see that Stratford has to a small extent been made over with a Bieber geography in my absense: Rheo Thompson Candies (a well-known chocolatier in the Stratford tourist industry) now has a Justin Bieber box, Bieber collector's cards and other paraphenalia are available in most retail locations, and places like his favourite restaurant (Madeliene's) which were previously understood in terms of family and friend's connections to it are now labeled as part of the Bieber landscape. Stratford was already a tourist town due to its theatre and arts scene--and its shops and restaurants--but now it has been remade again. I think I prefered Shakespeare-themed tourism to teen idol-themed tourism.

My brother and I discussed the young man in question and determined that he is not at fault for the silliness that surrounds him (though asking the mayor of Stratford to do something about the fans mobbing him was a bit out of touch with reality). The real issue lies with the obsessed fans--hyperventilating because a mediocre singer is in the same city as you? really?--and with the media outlets that encourage this behaviour, typifying it as a valid developmental stage in young women as opposed to teaching girls to make good choices in who they bestow their affections on and how they do it.

4. On Monday I bid Fort McMurray farewell and flew to Vancouver. That makes three provinces in a handful of days and three flights in just over a week. I've maxed my annual allowable environmental damage right there, I think. The weather, scent, and vegetation that greeted me was wonderful.

5. Wednesday evening some friends and I went to see The Merchant of Venice at Bard on the Beach. Other friends would have gone were it not for Game 7 (see next entry). It was an interesting production. Off the top, I'll say that the costumes, acting, and music were as good as one could want. Shylock was especially wonderful. But as with any production of Merchant, there are some particular problems that are hard to overcome. Portia is racist. In order to mitigate this, I think, they really played the suitors from Carthage and Aragon as ridiculous figures, but with the culturally and racially sensitive dialogue, this verged on being racist in and of itself. Further, Shylock's forced conversion is horrifying, but not as horrifying as the audience's laughter at it. One of the more interesting choices, I think, is to make the homosocial relationship between Antonio and Bossanio an unreciprocated romantic relationship: Antonio clearly loved Bossanio as something other than a son, and his melancholy was "explained" by Bossanio leaving him. However, I like a tinge of sorrow in fictions, so this lingering plot, coupled with other moments of sadness and discomfort in the midst of the comedy (including a really uncomfortable Jessica), gave the play a depth and self-consciousness that I think was necessary. As one of my friends said, you can't really play it as a straight comedy any more.

6. There were riots in Vancouver that night. If you've been following Canadian news or coverage of the Stanley Cup, you may know what I'm talking about. Post-game rioters turned and torched sixteen police vehicles and looted numerous businesses in the Vancouver district. Also in attendance were riot police.

While waiting outside during the intermission, I suddenly noticed and called attention to a plume of smoke rising from the downtown district across the water. I hadn't paid mind to it at first because I was so used to smoke in Fort McMurray. A quick check on assorted Internet-connected gadgetry and my friends had the story. Since we knew people who had been at the game, we were a bit worried. Fortunately, all such friends were safe.

I've been distressed by the coverage of this event. The city officials have been blaming anarchists, which is ridiculous. While the blatant disregard for law shown by the rioters has a surface resemblance to anarchy, it is no more than surface. On Facebook I saw people writing that they were down there and there was no riot, only riot police. This is also ridiculous, considering ample first-person civilian reports of rioting. Beyond which, I don't think the riot police set their own cars on fire. Others are trying to deflect criticism from hockey itself, but of course there are problems with that, too: riots have occured in Vancouver before following big hockey games, but not following much else. What's most concerning, though, is the increase in sexual predation and harassment following hockey games. There are two articles that I found especially helpful. This one explains what happened and what has been said about it; this one looks closer at hockey itself and what gender has to do with it.

7. On Thursday I bought a new camera. I was quite pleased with it in the store, if leery of the touch screen, but now I'm not so sure. I'm not comfortable with its supermacro. I'll play with it a bit, continue trying this supermacro, and if it's not as good as my previous camera's, I'll go exchange it. I have two weeks to exchange, so long as I don't damage it. I'm sure I could live with this camera, but I'd rather have one I'm comfortable with considering that I expect it to last me a few years. It does have some nice features, mind you, including underwater photography and scrolling panoramics.

That is all! Please visit Conversion Diary, host of this blog carnival.

Friday, 3 June 2011


Elizabeth Esther hosts the Saturday Evening Blog Post, this time vol. 3, issue 5. Here participant bloggers submit their best blogs of the month. For the first time in a while I've actually produced a non-summary post, so I'm participating. I'm submitting my post on Approaching Mockery from Atheists. If you want to see self-chosen best posts, please head on over to Elizabeth's to see the full carnival.

7 Quick Takes (76)

I'm doing a 7 Quick Takes for the last month or so. Wow. This should be fun.

1. I returned to Fort McMurray for a brief time to visit friends and family. I'm still here as I write this but I won't be here for much longer. As usual, I'm staying with the folks.

2. Twice now we have gone to Elk Island National Park. This is a lesser known park near Edmonton. We did not see a single elk in the park, but we did see numerous bison. The first time we stayed in Edmonton; the second time we camped in the park itself. It was sometimes difficult to sleep because the ducks and geese and frogs and coyotes did not observe the 11 o'clock quiet hours. So the frogs chorused and the geese honked and the coyotes howled and yipped. The second time we also visited the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. This Village is one of those where everyone acts like a historical person, refusing to acknowledge that it's 2011 rather than the 1920's. I suppose many people find this sort of thing annoying but I rather enjoyed it. Perhaps it is because I liked to hear them talk in their fake Ukrainian (or, in one case, British) accents. I learned things about Orthodox church architecture, too; did you know that Orthodox churches have their belltowers detached from the church as part of a separate structure because they do not allow instruments in the church and the bell counts as an instrument? I had not known this.
This was all quite exciting, but in trying to take supermacro photos of water insects, I managed to get water on my camera which eventually culminated in its permanent damage. Now the photos it produces are wonky. However, it was an excellent final shoot for my dear camera. I got clear macro shots of spiders, frogs, dragonflies, and water striders. I might put some of these up at some point.

3. My summer plans, as I think I indicated before, include lots of reading and writing. I am treating this sort of work like a full-time job. You can go over my reading to date here, though I should also add that I have been reading some blogs, particularly Experimental Theology, philosiology, Unequally Yoked, and the best in us. (That last is more of a personal project of a friend relating to people he knows, so it may hold less interest for random Internet people. Perhaps it holds some value for you as a project, though--writing nice things about people he knows--so you may want to look at the mission statement.) I have also been reading and editing a manuscript for a friend's writing project. Where writing is concerned, I wrote a draft of an academic article and am now working on Creative Writing, though I must shamefacedly admit that I spend more time writing journal entries and letters. My tendency to go on theoretical diversions means that I am, at least, thinking.

4. Fort McMurray has been dreadfully smoky. There are forest fires all around us. The one in Slave Lake got news attention, but there is also an enormous one north of us. The wind often carried think clouds in to the city, preventing me from running outdoors. It's worrying and inconvenient, but at least our community hasn't been destroyed.

5. My birthday occured. The most noteworthy things concerning this event are going to see Thor, having a picnic in the park, and getting The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. If you are a fan of Calvin and Hobbes, I encourage you to see this series Dr. Beck produced giving a theological reading of it. (If I'm not careful I will start recommending it as often as Leah does a certain Harry Potter fanfiction.) If you are not a fan of Calvin and Hobbes, I encourage you to become one. Otherwise my birthday was very quiet. I will have a joint (half-)birthday party with a friend in Vancouver when I return.

6. A little while back I saw the next installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. I realize that not many people liked it. It certainly was not as good as the first. Notwithstanding that, I enjoyed it, mainly for the mermaid-missionary sideplot. It was good that they excised the Elizabeth-Will story from the series; it had reached its logical conclusion and any further story there would be of incredibly shoddy value. They needed to have a morally steady character, though, and the missionary filled this admirably, I think. He is certainly less annoying than Will was. I also find mermaid myth and lore fascinating (but I mean the old stuff, where they're fay, wild, ammoral creatures as much as amorous ones, where they can get human legs without having to make a deal with a witch, where they can't quite decide whether to drown you or love you). While the Pirates of the Caribbean version wasn't exactly like that, I was still pleased. In fact, I was rather OK with the depature made at the end. (For excellent mermaid-related storytelling, please visit Hark! A Vagrant's mermaid story. In fact, visit anyway. World history, canonical literature, and Canadiana have never been more awesome.)
In related news, I'm coming to understand that my tastes in what makes a movie good vary significantly from almost everyone else's. I tend to gravitate towards elements I like without seeing the chaff that is the rest of the movie. If I like that element strongly, I like the movie. If there is nothing outstanding, I tend to dislike the movie. If there is something else that is not simply unartful but outright repulsive, not much can make me like it.

7. I have watched a few TED talks which I want to recommend. In no particular order:
Mustafa Akyol's Faith versus tradition in Islam
Kathryn Schulz's On being wrong (this is crucial for anyone who has an overwhelming confidence in their own rightness, aka most people on the Internet)
Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation
Dan Meyer's Math class needs a makeover (on making mathematics a good sell)
Nate Silver's Does race affect votes?

Please visit Jen at Conversion Diary, host of this fine carnival.
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