Comprehensive Exam 1.1

This is the first of two sample responses that I wrote in preparation for my first comprehensive exam. Hopefully it will give you an idea of one way you can organize your thoughts for your own 4-hour, no notes, terrorizing experience of the sit-down exam. As for me, I’ll be writing the 7-day version next time!

The Practice Question:

Landscape has been an important trope in Canadian studies for decades.  Scholars from across various disciplines—including literary studies, history, Aboriginal studies and the more predictable fields of Art History and Visual Studies—have addressed how landscape has been used to define and contain notions of Canadian identity.  Write an historiographical outline of scholarly treatments of landscape since the 1960s.  Broadly trace the trajectory of scholarship within Canada and discuss four or five scholarly works in some detail.

An Attempt At An Answer:

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to paint it, does it still contribute to nascent Canadian nationalism and a growing collection of Canadian wilderness iconography? If someone does paint the tree, but no one theorizes about the painting’s role as a contribution to Canadian nationalism (etc), does the image still have meaningful reverberations?

A number of painters (seven?) did create a series of works based on Canadian scenery that are often considered emblematic of The Canadian Nation. (What “the,” “Canadian,” and “nation” refer to is still the subject of some extended debate.) Beginning with Northrop Frye in the 1960s, the Canadian literary landscape has been understood as a projection of the Canadian “garrison mentality.” According to Gaile McGegor (1985), this literary fixation on fear of the wilderness is mirrored in the “Wacousta syndrome” in Canadian landscape paintings. In Wacousta, the Europeans remain in their fort, fearful of the natural elements that surround their patch of ‘civilization.’ Per McGregor, the American equivalents of this type of frontier story (James Fennimore Cooper) focus much more on descriptive passages of nature, while Wacousta projects a claustrophobic narrative image centered upon the fort. (She extends this metaphor to Canadian landscape paintings as looming depictions of the deadly wilderness, in contrast to the broad, open landscapes of American painters in the same period, who show trains, rivers, and roads allowing access through various scenes.)

Margaret Atwood seems to share this vision of the Canadian landscape as oppressive (see Survival, 1972 – the title is enough of an indication). In The Malevolent North (1995), she continues an exploration of the theme of fear in CanLit. As she notes, there’s a lot to be afraid of in the Canadian North. She details the deaths of unsuccessful explorers (Franklin), the horrors of the Wendigo, ‘macabre’ incidents like The Cremation of Sam McGee, and projections of The North as an all-consuming female force. Sherill Grace, writing in 2002, again picks up on this fixation on the unknown, unknowable, and oppressive notion of north.

Grace traces depictions of The North through explorer’s journals to contemporary Inuit cartoons, cataloging the multiple ways in which The North has been treated as an exotic colony for adventure, exploration, resource extraction, and sovereignty exercises (by Southern Canada) and as a homeland (by Northern Canadians). The variability in notions, interpretations, and projections of The North at once define and explode Canadian identity. Canada is, in a way, surrounded by the omnipresent specter of the North and specter of American cultural imperialism. To flee the latter, it seems that many artists and scholars embrace the former. This plays out in blatant nationalist rhetoric as well as perhaps more subtle manifestations, such as novels, paintings, comic books, and poetry.

However, the numerous manifestations of The North that pervade popular and academic Canadian culture allow for varied interpretations of The North open to Canadians. For some Canadians, north of 60 is home. For others, it is a place that exists as a promise or a threat – the promise of distinction from America-land, and the threat of impending ice and snow. As Frye suggests, Canada is a series of solitudes, and even the notion of North is not a panacea for the disunity that ails it. For some Canadians, Algonquin Park or Hudson Bay is North. For other Canadians, Yellowknife is South. Grace uses the metaphor of the magnetic North Pole as an emblem of the moving target that is the perception of The North in the Canadian psyche.

In the words of T.S. Eliot, “where you are is where you are not” (1943), and so the ‘othering’ of the US by Canadians living along the US border is necessary to the cultivation of a separate, distinct, bilingual, multicultural middle power’s ostensibly mosaic culture. Exoticizing and embracing the North is one of the myriad ways used to achieve such distinction. Painting trees very distinctly seems to be another.

The focus on landscape painting thus far may lead one to believe that the National Gallery in Ottawa is full of images depicting “rocks and trees and water” (per The Arrogant Worms). However, landscape reaches beyond such framed displays and includes the notion of physical labor, of shaping (and landscaping!) the land. Clifford Geertz explains that different cultures in different places have unique approaches to the treatment of art. Specifically, he points to a society that does not have art critics in the sense that Euro-Canadians do, but that this lack of professional art critics does not imply a shortage of artistic expression in handicrafts.

In the same way, I would argue, physical landscaping (as in cultivating, gardening, and similar tasks), while not accorded the same value as a landscape painting may be by audiences and art critics, is still a lived experience that contributes to the larger process of containing, controlling, and possessing the land. While paintings may be understood as the artistic expression of this, farming is another common-sensical, everyday (and perhaps overlooked) expression of the nationalism expressed in (or read in to) landscape paintings hanging in the National Gallery.

As Thomas King notes, “the truth about stories is that’s all we are,” and landscaping is the type of story that is lived in Canadian culture through generally recognized avenues, such as Group of Seven exhibitions, postage stamps based on Group of Seven paintings, and artistic responses to the Group of Seven (like The Group of Sixty-Seven). However, a similar European landscaping has taken place since the earliest efforts to import “civilization” were undertaken by European “explorers.” Brian Osborne says that members of the earliest European expeditions to Canada catalogued what they found with an empirical eye, and it was only under the influence of European painting traditions that images of the landscape (such as paintings and work found in atlases) became stylized and stereotypical. However, I would argue (per Althusser) that cataloguing, no matter how empirically based, is an ideology. As such, from explorers writing in their journals to survey teams measuring the land (as seen at Red River) to moody (Moodie?) settlers clearing the bush to photographers and anthropologists documenting life on the Pacific coast (Williams) to landscape painters to Isuma films (Evans), some type of ideological discursive work is undertaken with The Land at its core.

Measuring, mapping (Geoff King), painting, filming, photographing (Geller), possessing, and occupying the land are all ways of staking out an identity, eking out a living, and claiming a place. These acts of landscaping can enable erasure (Bordo) and nationalism (Anderson, Billig, Edensor, Mackey, Hjartarson), but can also lead to the reclamation of stolen territories (Turkel, Sparke), preservation of stories (Evans), and reinterpretation of colonial myths (Ryan). These activities are not dichotomous, but rather exist in a spectrum of (re)appropriation and (re)negotiation, like the palette used to (re)draw Canadian borders in artistic media, including paintings, maps, photographs, and other cultural practices.

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3 Responses to Comprehensive Exam 1.1

  1. derb says:

    @Danielle. Things worth doing and rarely easy! They are intimidating because they are designed to push you. You just have to dig deep and push back.

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