Comprehensive Exam 1.4

This is another one of the questions I actually answered during my four-hour, no-notes nightmare exam in November. I wouldn’t say that I am particularly proud of these answers, and I am a bit reluctant to share them in their unpolished state, but I think it will be useful for others to see what I generated in the time available (and plan accordingly for your own exam, should you choose this torturous route!).

Real Question The Second:

Gaile McGregor argues that the central icon of Canadian culture is the visual image of the well-organized, self-contained fort. In her view, this visual conception of Canada has an impact on every aspect of Canadian culture, from film and TV shows to the human geography of the country. This is especially obvious when comparing Canada to the US. Taking McGregor’s theory a step further, discuss whether the visual culture of Canada as a whole is centripetal, while its American counterpart is centrifugal.

My answer, despite being told repeatedly not to include jokes:


First, I will provide additional examples of how Canadian visual culture is centripetal and American visual culture is centrifugal. Then, I will offer counter examples that show how American visual culture can be seen as centripetal and Canadian visual culture is centrifugal, but how these examples are exceptions rather than the rule. In conclusion, I will agree with McGregor that the visual culture of Canada seems largely centripetal, although the dissonant examples that I provide do not immediately appear to be accommodated by her theory.

Canadian Visual Culture is Centripetal

McGregor’s (2003) hypothesis—that Canadian visual culture reflects the notion of communal (en)closure, while American visual culture reflects open individualism—is reflected quite clearly in the national mascots of each country. The Canadian beaver literally builds a fortress to combat natural elements, while the American eagle symbolically soars in the sky, enjoying the expansive view and killing smaller animals. McGregor (1985) points to architecture as an example of Canadians-in-the-fort and American open-ness, noting that Canadians residing along the border with New York state live in brick houses, while New York residents live in stick houses. She notes that this discrepancy cannot be attributed to environment alone, as the two groups living in close proximity share a comparable climate, but rather that Canadians live in brick houses because of their great fear of the outside / unknown, while Americans are less afraid, and more open, to nature.

The permeability of American visual culture is reflected in the metaphor of the Canadian quilt contra the American melting pot. The notion of a quilt, an enclosed assortment of fabrics, usefully accommodates the Canadian policy of multiculturalism while simultaneously closing the borders and containing difference (the edge of the quilt or the actual points of entry to Canada), whereas the American melting pot remains open (for the sake of this argument)—the lid remains off the pot and the simmering stew of people can render any differences meaningless.

American Visual Culture is Centripetal

Just as a beaver’s dam redirects water, applying the fort metaphor to Canadian visual culture has broader implications. Northrop Frye, an early proponent of the ‘garrison mentality,’ asks the open-ended riddle “Where is here?” while Frederick Jackson Turner, credited with coining the phrase ‘frontier mentality’ to describe the US, declared that same frontier closed (c. 1898). Likewise, whereas a Canadian apocalypse film ends by fading to black, thereby leaving the narrative unresolved, the American Armageddon leaves viewers with a finite, conclusive, celebratory ending (Loiselle).

So, while it at first seems reasonable to suggest that the visual culture of Canada as a whole is centripetal, while its American counterpart is centrifugal, some examples counteract this theory. McGregor (1985) details how Canadian landscape paintings present a claustrophobic view of nature looming, while American paintings presents a scenic version of nature, often expressed by a train running through mountains. While this could be seen as reflecting the dichotomy between the Canadian affinity for centripetal expression (after all, landscapes are contained within the frame) and American centrifugal expression (setting out to tame the frontier), these images could also be read as nature overwhelming a Canadian spectator while Americans admire the fenced-in frontier that they are able to navigate and close with their trains and technology.

The notion of open-ness in Canadian visual culture is further supplemented by Atwood’s discussion of the Wendigo myth (1995). In the novel[1] she cites, the (very ‘Canadian’) Wendigo spirit overwhelms the protagonist’s wife, who then eats their baby, leaving behind an apt metaphor for the permeability of the Canadian body, if consuming the baby is read as defying the boundaries between self and other. Likewise, certain maps of Canada defy the closure of the borders of the country by interrupting the borders of the map to include the fringes of Newfoundland and Nunavut, while maps of the United States almost invariably enclose Alaska and Hawaii in the bottom left corner in ordered, uniformly rectangular boxes.

Canadian Visual Culture is Centripetal After All

On the other hand, many other maps of Canada seem to reflect an enclosed, bounded sense of space, sometimes leaving off the northern tip of Ellesmere Island altogether (perhaps because it’s too overwhelming to consider), or foregrounding a closed-in farm with trees relegated to the background (Hjartarson).

Other than odd moments of cannibalism, McGregor is correct in suggesting that the visual culture of Canada is largely centripetal. From literature (Wacousta) to loonies (the emphasis on animals within the borders of Canadian currency is another example of enclosing isolated emblems of the wilderness while avoiding the overwhelming aspects of Canadian nature – rather like favoring a zoo over a safari);[2] from photographs of wheat fields (Payne), women (Williams), and Inuit (Geller); and from isolated northern communities to Canadian cities clustered along the US border, the map of visual culture in Canada – and maps of Canada – reflect the enclosed, contained, fort mentality.

Although some of the examples that I provided are not accommodated by McGregor’s theory, such dissonance can be accommodated by the notion of Canadian irony (Hutcheon, McGregor). If Canadians are so afraid of what lies beyond the walls of the fort, the brick houses, or the borders of the country, then ‘huddling’ closer together (eating each other), avoiding fearful events (fading to black before the end of the world), and accommodating difference by redrawing the borders (maps and quilts) are all solutions to those problems, even if at first they can be read as complications to the metaphorical fort.

[1] Although technically literature could fall outside of the scope of ‘visual culture,’ Krygier (1995) points out that reading words is a visual practice.

[2] For more on currency as a national icon, see Billig.

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One Response to Comprehensive Exam 1.4

  1. Pingback: Comprehensive Exam Advice, Part 1: The List! | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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