Whose Identity Is It, Anyway? or Who Is Here?

For the core seminar in the PhD program in Canadian Studies, we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month.  This is part one of three from my November 2010 paper on our topics of emphasis in this area study.  “Who is here?” in the title is a pun on Northrop Frye’s (in)famous question to Canadians: “Where is here?”  The text gets slightly disjointed in parts because I put some new snide asides and all of my footnotes into the text [in brackets].

Identities & Irony

My cover page was rad:

“In any world menu, Canada must be considered the vichyssoise of nations—it’s cold, half-French, and difficult to stir.” – Linda Hutcheon, Splitting Images, 1991

And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? – Alanis Morissette, 1995

Inuit View to the South: To me, this image speaks to Katherine McKittrick and Rinaldo Walcott’s calls to re-think and re-map ‘Canadian’ geography, Richard Handler’s mention of “political” maps of the world, Sherene Razack’s discussion of spatial metaphors, and Nadine Changfoot’s mention of identities and geography.

It seems that postcolonialism, postmodernism, and identity—like interdisciplinarity and the socio-historical terrain of Canada itself—are problematic, contested, and fluid discourses that can work to include or exclude a variety of voices and agendas.  According to Linda Hutcheon, “some marginalized or minoritized groups within Canadian society still do feel the need for subversive tactics to fight the ethnocentrism (and racism) perhaps latent in all social discourses.”  Donna Bennett argues that “Canada seems an ideal laboratory for the study of postcolonial writing [because] it was formed by the interactions of three distinct cultures—the aboriginal, the French, and the English” and “at least one of the groups in each relationship conceives of it in ways that make a postcolonial approach useful.”  Perhaps this listing of cultures works to problematically homogenize diverse populations and reify specific cultural identities, effectively “impos[ing] a new dominant discourse” instead of “mak[ing] the dominant and dominating culture self-conscious” (Hutcheon).

In light of this critique, is it more useful to adopt Hutcheon’s notion of “double vision” and “ironies that voice the contradictions that the outsider can see, even within a seemingly homogenous culture,”or is Bennett’s kaleidoscope metaphor a convincing replacement for the mosaic?  [Joan Sangster speaks of “double vision” as “integrating… the spheres of production, sexual and social life.”  Does this work alongside Hutcheon’s deployment of the phrase, or is it merely coincidentally similar terminology?]

[I totally got to make a bunch of kaleidoscopes during an Intersession program at IMSA.  I don’t think I mentioned that in class, but it is clearly relevant to the topic at hand.] [PS For non-Canadian readers, there is some ongoing discussion around Canada as a ‘mosaic’ as opposed to the Great American Melting Pot.  Hope that helps you make more sense of this!]

Stuart Hall claims that “[i]dentity is always in the process of formation” and “identification is always constructed through ambivalence.”  Hutcheon’s discussion of irony at the margins highlights this creative tension between “insiders and outsiders; … otherness and difference:”

Irony opens up new spaces, literally between opposing meanings, where new things can happen…  Liminality is the space between two worlds, it is a place of paradox.  It is also a place of irony.  And in both cases, this is where the action is…  [I]n this age of postmodern re-valuing of borders and margins as preferred sites of articulation of difference, many feel that the margins are indeed where the action is: that resistance and contestation make for more exciting art than centrisms of all kinds.

[Ironically, in the copy of Splitting Images that I borrowed from the library, someone wrote “This is crap” in the margin beside this passage.]  However, in his analysis of the term ‘identity’ as a dominant epistemology deployed by certain scholars without enough “critical scrutiny,” Richard Handler cautions:

[T]o distance ourselves epistemologically from ideologies of identity is a politically delicate task, for many of the claimants to collective identity whose cultural philosophy we may dispute are nonetheless peoples whose struggles for social justice we support.

Handler reminds us not to wholeheartedly celebrate the postmodern “fragmentation and erosion of collective social identity” (Hall).  [This reminds me of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community (2000), which argues that Americans sign fewer petitions, socialize less often, and join bowling leagues less frequently than ‘ever before,’ pointing to changes like exurbanization, computers, and television as factors that have diminished community involvement.  Perhaps these same issues have contributed to the so-called erosion of “collective social identities” that Hall argues were “formed in, … staged and stabilized by industrialization, by capitalism, by urbanization, … by the great punctuation of civil and social life into the public and the private, [etcetera].”  On the other hand, Putnam’s work could also be a case of “historical nostalgia” (Hall).]

This warning resonates in Susan Wendell’s policy-oriented definition of the disabled identity that “enables non-disabled people to realize that they are temporarily non-disabled [and…] that it is in their own direct interest to structure society so that people with disabilities have good opportunities to participate in every aspect of social life.”

If “identity is always in part a narrative [or] representation” (Hall), “we haven’t got an identity until somebody tells our story” (Kroetsch in Bennett), and “[t]he truth about stories is that’s all we are” (an oft-repeated phrase in Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories [2003]), what stories do we (as a collection of Teaching Assistants, Professors, and Professionals, among our other Identities) tell about Canada?  How do we work to (de)construct narratives of Canada and Canadian identity?

Hall argues that the “logic of identity [as a guarantee of authenticity that is spatially organized and stable] is, for good or ill, finished” and“[y]ou have to be positioned somewhere in order to speak.”  Judith Butler adds that “I,” the subject, “is constituted by… fully embedded organizing principles of material practices and institutional arrangements” (in a word, positions).  So, how do you identify and position yourself?

On a lighter note, Hall asks “[W]hat does anybody in the world know about an English person except that they can’t get through the day without a cup of tea?”  With this in mind, complete the following: What does anybody in the world know about a Canadian person except that s/he ________________?

This question is inspired, in part, by the CBC contest that resulted in the phrase “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances,” by Mavis Gallant’s claim that “a Canadian is someone ‘ who has a logical reason to this he [sic] is one’” (Hutcheon), and by John Robert Colombo’s “A Canadian Is Somebody Who.”

Recently, I put a similar Mad Libs-style poll up on my Facebook profile, and I got some interesting answers…

Fill in the blank: You know you’re in Canada when…

  • You apologize for apologizing.
  • Your teeth start chattering?
  • You’re missing a kidney and the first two pages have been torn out of your passport.
  • You’re not sure if you’re in Canada.
  • You can afford a prescription.
  • Some weirdo apologizes for apologizing to you.
  • People say, ‘eh’ a lot, a hockey player sells coffee and donuts for a living, and people smile at you as you walk down the street.
  • You realize the cheeseburger you’ve been eating for 10 minutes is actually made out of maple syrup.
  • You get milk in a bag.
  • You think you know how to knock boots in a canoe.
  • ‎The last letter of the alphabet is pronounced “zed.”
  • You eat ketchup chips!
  • You’re being asked to vote in a federal election… every few months.
  • A Royal Mountie can arrest you. [Links to relevant lyrics, not to information on taser incidents.]
  • Thé bilingual clerk is off for lunch.
Feel free to add your own in the comments!

Richard Handler, “Is Identity a Useful Cross-Cultural Concept?” in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, 1994.

Stuart Hall, “Old and New Identities, Old and new Ethnicities” in A.D. King (ed.) Culture, Globalization, and the World-system: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Donna Bennett. “English Canada’s Postcolonial Complexities.”Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism. Ed. Cynthia Sugars. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2004.

Linda Hutcheon. Splitting Images: Contemporary Canadian Ironies. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Ground: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Rinaldo Walcott. “‘A Tough Geography’: Towards a Poetics of Black Space(s) in Canada.” Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism. Ed. Cynthia Sugars. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2004. 277-288.

Susan Wendell, The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability, New York: Routledge, 1996.

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