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Comment comparer le Canada avec les États-Unis aujourd'hui

 | 
Hélène Quanquin
, 
Christine Lorre-Johnston
, 
Sandrine Ferré-Rode

La pertinence de McLuhan aujourd’hui

McLuhan’s “Borderline Case” Revisited

Richard Cavell

Résumé

L’essai « Canada: The Borderline Case » [Le Canada: le cas frontière], de McLuhan (1967), propose d’envisager le Canada non pas comme un pays ayant un « contenu » culturel et politique stable, ou une relation singulière avec les États-Unis, mais comme une nation en devenir, du fait de ses multiples relations de frontières, apparues avec la médiation électronique. Les idées de McLuhan ont trouvé un intérêt renouvelé à l’ère de la mondialisation, où la dynamique entre le local et le mondial revêt une importance grandissante. Paradoxalement, dans ce contexte, nous avons un besoin accru de frontières multiples, précisément pour articuler la relation entre le local et le mondial.

Texte intégral

“Globes make my head spin.
By the time I locate the place,
they’ve changed the boundaries.”
Marshall McLuhan,
War and Peace in the Global Village (1968)

  • 1 The image, which I reproduce at the beginning of this paper, appears in the section of the book cal (...)
  • 2 See Cavell, 2005.
  • 3 See Williams, 1974: ch. 4 passim.

1The key issue in the 1988 federal election in Canada was the proposal of the Conservative Party, led by Brian Mulroney, for a free trade agreement—the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, as it was to be known—with the United States and Mexico. Liberal Party leader John Turner argued that this agreement was a forfeiting of Canadian sovereignty, and in the campaign this idea was represented through an advertisement that has been called “one of the most effective political messages ever aired” (Gray, 2004: 616).1 In the ad, “a young US trade negotiator says to his older Canadian counterpart, ‘There is one line [of the agreement] I’d like to change,’ and the Canadian asks, ‘Which line is that?’ Then the camera moves to this image of a hand grasping a pencil and erasing the border between Canada and the United States” (Gray, 2004: 616). The Liberals lost the election (even though the popular vote went to the two parties—Liberals and New Democrats—opposing the agreement) and NAFTA is now part of the Canadian political landscape. The ad, nevertheless, remains a fascinating document in the ongoing discussion of the role of the Canada-US borderline and the question of crossborder comparisons. I am particularly attracted by the ambiguity of this still from the ad, in which the hand could either be drawing the borderline or erasing it; by the defeatured2 landscape represented on the map, and above all by the fact that the ad appeared on television, a medium which is least respective of sovereignty in its devotion to flow.3

1.

  • 4 See Bristow, 2006.
  • 5 On the current fallout from NAFTA see Barlow 2005 and Urmetzer 2005.
  • 6 M. Adams, 2003, Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada, and the Myth of Converging Values, Toronto (...)

2The Canada-US comparison has most often been invoked to address the relationship between economic integration and cultural independence,4 so that its underlying concern is with the extent to which values are shared by the two nations. It was this concern with values that underpinned the late Seymour Martin Lipset’s 1990 book Continental Divide, as indicated by his subtitle: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada. Published just after the signing of the Free Trade Agreement,5 whose spectre prompted the television advertisement I opened with, the book was perhaps designed, consciously or unconsciously, to assuage Canadians’ fears that the economic integration promised by NAFTA would lead to cultural integration. In fact, as Michael Adams’s book, Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada, and the Myth of Converging Values, published in 2003, suggested, after a decade of free trade and crossborder investment the economic closeness of the two nations had produced a marked division in values, with Canada favouring “idealism and autonomy” and the US “exclusion and intensity.”6 However, as Jason Bristow notes in a recent issue of the Literary Review of Canada, these categories are so broad as to be capable of explaining any possible difference between the two nations along the axes of similarity and difference, convergence and divergence.

3Nor have the most recent crossborder studies greatly advanced this debate, as Bristow goes on to note in a discussion of Edward Grabb and James Curtis’s Regions Apart: The Four Societies of Canada and the United States (2005). Using survey questionnaires, the authors are able to determine, for example, that Americans “believe more strongly in Heaven and Hell than do Canadians” (Bristow, 2006: 26). Beyond this admittedly important distinction, the authors discover through their surveys that the “overall difference of moral values—so commonly attributed as a stark Canadian-American difference, particularly during the Bush presidency—is statistically significant, but not by a landslide” (Bristow, 2006: 26). Interestingly, “Canadians actually gave more pro-market answers” in the surveys than their US counterparts, which is “in direct contradiction to Lipset’s argument that Canadian acceptance of government ownership and regulation of markets constitutes a defining national difference” (Bristow, 2006: 27).

4The outcome of Grabb and Curtis’s surveys is that “Canada-US comparative value differences are minor, that the two societies are similar; and they characterize Michael Adams’s claim of value divergence, in Fire and Ice, as ‘bold,’ arguing that assertions of national distinctiveness serve to comfort Canadians by emphasizing differences beyond what the empirical evidence allows” (Bristow, 2006: 27). In fact, their book shows that values differ within Canada and within the US more than they differ between the two nations (Bristow, 2006: 27).

  • 7 This view of a Republican ascendancy is supported by Phillips in his new book, American Theocracy: (...)

5However, there is a larger issue here, namely that, as Bristow puts it, once the researchers decide whether Canada-US values are similar or different, “it is exceedingly difficult for the evidence to reach escape velocity to pull the researchers away from the gravitational orbit they would have automatically found themselves in. And the same bias goes for readers.” In fact, “[c]onclusions based solely on quantitative values tend to wilt under close historical examination.” As Bristow notes, “[t]o argue that conservatism in Canada is unlike conservatism in the US is to miss the point. They are different beasts altogether” (Bristow, 2006: 28). Bristow’s own view is that conservatism in the US will see the Republicans becoming the “natural governing party,”7 thus undermining a “common political ground” that has existed between Canada and the US since the 1930s. The fact that free trade did not produce the cultural integration that was so feared in the late 1980s can be seen as a prelude to the estrangement that Bristow foresees, and suggests that predictions of a North American political union were highly exaggerated.

  • 8 The economic hegemony of the US is already in the process of decline, as Jeff Faux argues in The Gl (...)
  • 9 The title quotes from the late Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera, 1987.

6While I do not disagree with Bristow’s analysis, I do question the assumption that the Canada-US comparison will continue to have the importance that it has had in the past. What has given that comparison such a high profile, beyond the fact of geography—although even that fact is mutable—is the US’s economic hegemony,8 especially to the extent that that hegemony has been translated into cultural terms, which is why the Massey Report recommended in the 1950s that Canada use public funds to support national broadcasting and the arts. In the 21st century, however, the cultural picture has changed remarkably; as H. V. Nelles remarks in A Little History of Canada, “Canada [has] become better known abroad for its human talent—novelists, singers, actors, filmmakers, artists, athlet[e]s, academics, engineers, and business leaders—than for its natural resources” (Nelles, 2005: 256). Even if the cultural threat has receded, however, the issue of borderlines is still important culturally and politically. Indeed, as theorists such as Etienne Balibar argue, borders have become the most important political issue of the present moment, insofar as this issue is characterized by postnationalism and by deterritorialization. As R. J. Ellis notes, the “idea of ‘roots’ is giving way to an idea of ‘routes,’ with space increasingly mapped out in flows. […] Static understandings of [the] nation state are under stress, even if borders have not yet, by any means, dissolved” (Ellis, 2001).9

7What I propose to do in the remainder of this paper is look into the larger implications of these comments for crossborder comparisons, and to do so by revisiting Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 notion of Canada as a “borderline case.”

2.

  • 10 On another front, the “Commentary” section of the Times Literary Supplement states that “the Englis (...)

8It makes eminent sense, in the present historical moment, to revisit McLuhan’s notion of Canada as a land of “multiple borderlines, psychic, social, and geographic” (McLuhan, 1989: 163), borderlines that are proliferating in the psycho-geography of electronic communications networks. From our present vantage point we have a much clearer sense of the problematic McLuhan was alerting us to in his 1967 article. The December 2005 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, for example, is obsessed by the border shifts occasioned by electronic media, be they the “sovereignty concerns” vested in the Internet’s “national two-letter address domains” (Foreign Affairs, 2005: 13), or be they the “virtual Islamist community in cyberspace” afforded to radical Islamic groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) through “the Internet’s global reach,” which “is perfect for a group that denies the legitimacy of political borders” (Foreign Affairs, 2005: 72).10 It is in this context, thus, that I am proposing we re-visit McLuhan’s concept of the “borderline” as mediator of the hardware and software configurations of nationhood that have come to characterize the global village.

  • 11 The essay was recently quoted in a speech given by the Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean: (...)

9McLuhan’s article, “Canada: The Borderline Case”, was first delivered as a radio broadcast during Canada’s centennial year; it was subsequently given as a lecture at Harvard University on the occasion of the US bicentennial; and it was revisited in a posthumous work co-authored with Bruce R. Powers.11 Its ostensible concern was the cultural and political relationship between Canada and the US, although McLuhan’s agenda in the article was to broaden the concept of the borderline beyond the traditional focus on the 49th parallel. The comparison with the United States was inevitable, of course, even mandated, as I have discussed in the “Borderlines” chapter of my book McLuhan in Space, given that the most important cultural document in Canadian history—the Massey Report (1951)—formulated its policy recommendations in direct response to the perceived cultural hegemony of the United States. Whereas the report represents the US as a slough of popular culture that increasingly threatens Canadian cultural sovereignty through the effects of radio and television, it portrays Canada as a place of traditional, and largely British, values, where one can still hear “our choir and our organist in valiant and diligent practice of The Messiah” (Canada, 1951: 20). The establishment of the Canada Council was recommended by the Report as a way to create a cultural bulwark against US incursions through a system of federal grants to artists and cultural workers generally (and subsequently through various “Canadian content” regulations).

  • 12 As economist Helliwell asserts, “Canada is a middle power in more than size and heft: it also lies (...)
  • 13 Frye, like McLuhan, had produced a cultural response to the centennial. The Modern Century (1967) p (...)
  • 14 Baudrillard has recently commented that “France is just a country; America is a concept. […] France (...)
  • 15 Helliwell comments that “it is more important than ever, from a global perspective, that Canada con (...)
  • 16 The major such distinction has to do with Canada’s enshrining of multiculturalism. Here the work of (...)

10McLuhan’s opposition to what he understood to be cultural protectionism, and thus an extension of political bureaucracy into artistic creation, caused him to re-position the debate inaugurated by the Report. He shifted the ground of the comparison, encouraged no doubt by the new role Canada had taken on in the Cold War as the mediating space between the Soviet Union and the US,12 so that it was Canada which emerged as the point de repère of the comparison by virtue of its “software” identity, a “low profile” (McLuhan, 1989: 166) identity ideally suited to the global flows of information that had come to occupy McLuhan’s interests as a cultural theorist. McLuhan thus turned on its head the classic analysis of Canada as lacking an identity, a notion developed most famously by his Toronto confrère, Northrop Frye.13 McLuhan argued that, while the US had established itself as a social, political and cultural “environment” (McLuhan, 1989: 149),14 or ground for comparison, Canada had taken on the role of “counter-environment” to the US,15 to the extent that we are both the same as the US in many ways, and in others very different.16 The differences, of course, often exist more as a perception than as a reality (and here we enter into the domain of the psycho-geography alluded to in the title of McLuhan’s article). For instance, Canada likes to laud itself as a champion of human rights in comparison to the US, even though it has an abysmal record with reference to indigenous peoples. We like to champion our bilingualism, even though “many parts of the United States […] are in practice much more bilingual” (Welsh, 2004: 51). And, as Howard A. Doughty observes,

  • 17 Similarly, France often likes to compare itself to the US, positioning itself as the socialist coun (...)

[the] preposterous spectacle of Hillary Rodham Clinton attempting to create a sensible health care policy in a country in thrall to private enterprise would cause Canadians to laugh aloud were it not for our own discomfiture at seeming to be forever on the brink of allowing our own medicare system to disintegrate. (Doughty, 2005: 6)17

  • 18 “Today, it is the variegated nature of Europe, not its grand themes, that attracts attention. Norma (...)
  • 19 See Helliwell, 2002: chapter 3 passim. See also Keating, 2001: 169: “[Canada] is itself a constitut (...)

11The point here is that the ground of such comparisons is tectonic, constantly in movement, and not only with reference to Canada and the US. As Charles King notes in a review of Tony Judt’s recent history of Europe, “To conceive of Europe as a place that does not stop at the Oder-Neisse line or even the Bosphorus becomes possible once Europe refashioned itself as a set of values, not as a self-evident set of boundaries.”18 Canadian economist John Helliwell, similarly, finds it as important to compare Canada with the EU as with the US, arguing that Canada and the EU are both political entities “in process,”19 and that, thus, they have more in common with each other than either of them does with the United States.

  • 20 As McLuhan states, “Every-where is now-here” (McLuhan, 1972: 297). Compare with Deleuze and Guattar (...)
  • 21 McLuhan had theorized that we live in a psychic landscape—that the world around us was a psychic ph (...)
  • 22 B. Berman and J. Lonsdale, 1991, Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa, vol. 2, Violence and (...)

12It is this political “lack” (in the sense that Canada, as a nation “in process,” is less than one nation and many nations at the same time, but in neither case a nation in the traditional understanding of that term20) that McLuhan posits as fundamental to Canada’s status as a “borderline case.” In this way, he extends his famous notion that “the medium is the message” to the political domain, so that the identitarian “content” of the nation becomes secondary to its mediation through multiple borderlines.21 McLuhan’s interest here is less in “state building” (which had been the concern of his senior colleague, Harold Innis) than in “state formation, an historical process whose outcome is a largely unconscious and contradictory process of conflicts, negotiations, and compromises between diverse groups.”22 This notion is akin to Benedict Anderson’s of the “imagined community,” a notion which, as Anderson indicates, owes a great deal to the connections which McLuhan made in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) between mediation (and print specifically, in this case) and nation building.

  • 23 The notion of intersubjectivity is relevant to a post-hegemonic articulation of sovereignty, as Rob (...)
  • 24 As Derrida remarks, “No geography, no ‘territorial’ determination, is thus pertinent any longer for (...)
  • 25 It is important to specify that “environment” did not refer to nature in McLuhan’s usage of the ter (...)
  • 26 “Canada should stop trying to claim, or to prove, that it is ‘America’s best friend.’ The very idea (...)
  • 27 See, for example, T. Kuehls, 1996, Beyond Sovereign Territory: The Space of Ecopolitics, Minneapoli (...)
  • 28 “Americans do not know but Canadians cannot forget that two nations, not one, came out of the Ameri (...)
  • 29 It should be noted in this context that even the idea of “Europe” is shifting under the influence o (...)
  • 30 Ryan remarks in a review of T. Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 that “the history of (...)
  • 31 It is useful to position this discussion in terms of the ongoing debate concerning sovereignty, esp (...)

13For McLuhan, television had political implications that were as important as those of print. Rather than understanding TV in terms of its content, however, as the Massey Report had, thus representing a cultural threat to the extent that it is dominated by US programming, McLuhan suggested that television had caused—more importantly—a major shift across the social-cultural-political spectrum, the most important shift in the nature of the public sphere since Kant, a shift that could be characterized along Habermasian lines as moving from subjectivity to inter-subjectivity.23 What might once have been viewed as the domain of the logical had now shifted to the psychological, the affective, as in George Bush’s “war on terror,” where the territory under dispute is psychical rather than geographical.24 It is the borderline, in this formulation, that determines identity, and not the other way around. In the global village, the borderline sets up a dynamic between the “environment”25 and “counter-environment” which provides not only a powerful heuristic for understanding the relations of Canada and the US but also a basis for broader comparative analyses, even when (as Jennifer Welsh has argued26) the US is not their sole focus, as in the current context of eco-politics, diaspora and displacement, and of increasingly mobile ideologies.27 Theoretically, one is confronted here with what I have elsewhere called a “liminal incommensurability” (Cavell, 1996: 27–34), so that the boundaries of an issue are always in excess of its point of origin (and it should be noted that Lipset’s famous comment about the American Revolution seeks to posit an origin for Canada that, significantly, is outside Canada28). Sovereignty, in this understanding, is mutable, transferable, and not always defined in terms of political boundaries.29 McLuhan’s rejection of the linear model of historical continuity30 is relevant to this discussion; his notion of history as developed in The Gutenberg Galaxy was that of continual rupture, from orality to manuscript culture to literacy to the electronic era. Here he was faithful to the ideas of Canadian political economist Harold Adams Innis, whose work, as Alexander John Watson’s recent study Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis (2005) reminds us, presents a view of history as one catastrophic event after another. McLuhan extended this notion to a contemporary context, stating at the end of The Gutenberg Galaxy that the “new electric galaxy of events has already moved deeply into the Gutenberg galaxy. Even without collision, such co-existence of technologies and awareness brings traumas and tension to every living person” (McLuhan, 1962: 278–9)31.

  • 32 As Margaret Moore and Allen Buchanan comment, “One of the most destabilizing aspects of the post-Co (...)

14McLuhan echoes this comment, although in a different register, in his 1968 book, War and Peace in the Global Village, where he writes “Globes make my head spin. By the time I locate the place, they’ve changed the boundaries” (McLuhan, 1968: 1). Once again, McLuhan conveys his sense of geography as a psychic extension (and also an amputation, which accounts for the spinning) of consciousness (it is his head that is spinning, not the globe) through electronic mediation (this globe is plugged in), thereby heralding the breakdown of all sorts of borderlines, including political ones32 (the obsolete nature of the inherited political order nicely conveyed by the rather antiquated stand).

Illustration 2

Illustration 2

Globes make my head spin. By the time I locate the place, they've changed the boundaries

15Thirty years after McLuhan made these comments, we find Etienne Balibar returning to this notion of the fungibility of borderlines in his essay “At the Borders of Europe”, where he writes that:

[The] term border is extremely rich in significations. One of my hypotheses is that it is undergoing a profound change in meaning. The borders of new socio-political entities, in which an attempt is being made to preserve all the functions of the sovereignty of the state, are no longer entirely situated at the outer limits of territories; they are dispersed a little everywhere, wherever the movement of information, people, and things is happening and controlled. (Balibar, 2004: 1)

  • 33 McLuhan goes on to state that “[t]he superhuman scale of these electric ‘software’ vortices has cre (...)

16It was particularly the movement of information that McLuhan had in mind as he formulated the concept of Canada as a borderline case—we noted in the illustration from War and Peace in the Global Village that the globe was electrified and plugged into a wall socket. As McLuhan writes in the “Borderline” article, “[t]he vast new borders of electronic energy and information created by radio and television have set up world frontiers and interfaces among all countries on a new scale that alter all pre-existing forms of culture and nationalism” (McLuhan, 1989: 161).33 McLuhan would also have had a heightened sense of borderlines within a nation, given the increasingly separatist tendencies of Quebec; it was in 1967—the year of the Canadian centennial—that René Levesque left the Liberal party to create the sovereigntist Parti Québécois (Nelles, 2005: 224). And it had been the Cold War that had suddenly made Canada’s northern borderline with the Soviet Union a major political hot spot, an issue that is returning to the Canadian political forum today with the increasing number of trans-polar flights by larger and larger planes, which has prompted a debate as to whether Canada’s national motto should become “From Sea to Sea … to Sea.”

  • 34 This is so in Carl Schmitt’s sense that the “border is the pre-eminent site where the controls and (...)

17There are further echoes of McLuhan’s “borderline” essay in Balibar’s book. Balibar states that “border areas—zones, countries, and cities—are not marginal to the constitution of a public sphere but rather are at the center” (Balibar, 2004: 2).34 McLuhan had in fact written in the “borderline” article that

[i]n the age of the electronic information environment the big nations of the First World are losing both their identities and goals. France, Germany, England, and the United States are nations whose identities and goals were shaped by the rise of the self-regulating markets of the nineteenth century, markets whose quantitative equilibrium has been obsolesced by the dominance of the new world of instant information. […] New images of identity based on quality of life are forming in a world where suddenly small is beautiful and centralism is felt to be a disease. (McLuhan, 1989: 150)

  • 35 This experience is shared by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, 2000, Boston, Back Bay (...)
  • 36 Balibar notes a similar dynamic in the Balkan crisis of the 1990s, when Yugoslavia was seen both as (...)

18McLuhan wrote out of the experience of colonisation (an experience he understood in terms of globalisation), and was profoundly aware of the way in which previously marginalized territories would shift to the centre within a postcolonial context. He was also aware how this process would reconstitute and reverse itself through the effects of “electronic technologies [which] […] shake the distinction between inner and outer space, by blurring the difference between being here or there” (McLuhan, 1989: 148). We see this notion wittily played out in this advertisement (illustration 3) for digital telephones, so that the local and the global coincide at every point. Indeed, it was this blurring of local and global, inside and outside, to which McLuhan attributed his insights into the American culture machine—as a Canadian who was on the outside looking in, he was afforded a viewpoint unavailable to the insider.35 McLuhan argued that a profound rift had occurred in our ideas of inside and outside with the advent of television, which had the effect of bringing world events inside the home, and he was among the first to be aware of these implications at the time of the Viet Nam war, which is the focus of his book War and Peace in the Global Village.36 In this regard it is important to note that “borderline” is a shifting notion for McLuhan; in his essay, in fact, it is not a noun but an adjective, and an adjective that signifies a blurred psychic state rather than a rigid political territory.

3.

  • 37 A salutary effect of this approach is to heighten our awareness of borderlines within, such as thos (...)

19I would like to turn, now, to the other integer of the borderline question, which is the question of comparison. While Pierre Bourdieu has argued in Distinction that “comparison […] is incompatible with immersion in […] singularity” (Bourdieu, 1984: 34), I would like to argue that there is a critical imperative to compare within a globalized culture in order precisely to determine the singular positioning of a given work, event, or policy in relation to that culture. The implications of this insight are expressed compellingly by Masao Miyoshi: “[t]he academics’ work in this marketized world […] is to learn and watch problems in as many sites as they can keep track of, not in any specific areas, nations, races, ages, genders, or cultures, but in all areas, nations, races, ages, genders, and cultures” (Miyoshi, 2002: 49)37.

20As an academic with a doctorate in Comparative Literature, I approach this question from a particular disciplinary position which can be described as “transnationalist.” As Paul Giles has recently written,

  • 38 The internal quotation is from Kristeva, 1990, Nations Without Nationalism, trans. L. Roudiez, New (...)

[Transnationalism] differs from the older critical styles of Comparative Literature, […] which were predicated ultimately upon the notion of simply transcending national cultures […]. Transnationalism, by contrast, positions itself at a point of intersection—[Julia] Kristeva [for example], talks about “a transnational or international position situated at the crossing of boundaries”—where the coercive aspects of imagined communities are turned back on themselves, reversed, or mirrored, so that their covert presuppositions and ideological inflections become apparent. (Giles, 2001)38

21McLuhan had suggested in the “Borderline” article that a “border is not a connection but an interval of resonance” (McLuhan, 1989: 149), and by this he meant to highlight that the meaning of a borderline is dialogical, a dynamic of figure and ground, constantly shifting. This sense of displacement maps onto transnational comparatism affectively, as Giles notes:

[…] the affiliation between the subject and its location is always an affective, imaginary phenomenon. […] Location, in other words, might be said to provide a discursive rationale for imaginary identifications […]. This is not […] simply to occlude social or economic determinants, but it is to deny that they can be explicated merely in local or regional terms. (Giles, 2001)

22Hence McLuhan’s insistence on multicultural Canada as a “borderline” case, its geography a psycho-geography.

23Gayatri Spivak’s The Death of a Discipline pursues this politics of comparison further, arguing that the “growing virtualization of frontiers” is re-asserting “demographic, rather than territorial, frontiers that pre-date and are larger than capitalism” (Spivak, 2003: 16), so that the globalized “imposition of the same system of exchange everywhere” is contested by what she calls the “planetary.” This “planetary” dimension, it is important to note, seeks to capture “singularity” as a dynamic set of contrapuntal interrelationships between the global and the local (Said, 1993: 18). Indeed, as David Damrosch has compellingly argued in What is World Literature?, globalization has forced the recognition that the category of “world literature” that has traditionally subtended the discipline of comparative literature has been characterized by circulation and translation much more than by the canonical continuities that the term might imply. As he puts it, “works become world literature by being received into the space of a foreign culture” (Damrosch, 2003: 283).

  • 39 See Cavell, 2005–6, originally delivered to the Royal Geographical Society, 4 September 2003.
  • 40 Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, has said, notoriously, that Canada is simply the world’s greates (...)
  • 41 See especially Henighan, 2002: 133–156.
  • 42 I am grateful to Crystal Chipuer for this reference.
  • 43 Writing a decade later, Derrida mused similarly on the borderline: “What has happened […] is a sort (...)

24The implications of these theoretical musings are crucial for our understanding of the literary domain as it now exists in Canada. A major trend is observable in Canadian literature, whereby nation-bound works are giving way to those that claim location in the interconnectivity of global space.39 The fact that such works as The English Patient and Life of Pi40 have won the prestigious international Man-Booker prize has suggested to some that Canadian literature as such has come to an end.41 As Clifford Krauss has pointedly put it in an article written for The New York Times, Canadian literature is only “tangentially” Canadian; it is in fact a “multicultural amalgam of exotic flavours and imagery” (Krauss, 2002: E1–2).42 For McLuhan, this was an advantage, not a disadvantage, in that it affirms Canada’s “software” identity:43 “Today, when the old industrial hardware is obsolescent,” he writes, “we can see that the Canadian condition of low-profile identity and multiple borders approaches the ideal pattern of electronic living” (McLuhan, 1989: 166). Whereas previous modes of comparison might have sought to “push hundreds of thousands of people into a single category,” the fiction being written in Canada today requires us to give our attention to “how one individual can contain a hundred cultures” (Iyer, 2002: 77).

  • 44 If cultural comparison follows economic comparison, it is useful to note Helliwell, who comments th (...)
  • 45 McLuhan was explicit that “village” was not to be understood in a utopian sense, stating more than (...)
  • 46 As Borradori writes, “the essence of terror is not the physical elimination of whomever is perceive (...)

25It is precisely this dynamism that has come to characterize our understanding of Canada as a borderline case and its counter-environmental relationships—including, but not only, with the US44—in an increasingly mediated and globalized terrain. Indeed, globalization has put enormous strain on the concept of the nation as a territorial state, as McLuhan implied with his coining of the term “the global village.”45 The political and ethical manifestations of this shift to the global have increasingly focused on the question of cosmopolitanism.46 Cosmopolitanism, in this regard, can be understood as moving very much in synch with globalization, whose dynamic, in Jean-François Bayart’s definition, is one of a “general opening up of societies […] accompanied by the exacerbation of particular identities, whether religious, national, or ethnic” (Bayart, 1996: x). Yet that exacerbation should serve to remind us, Bayart argues, that all identities are constructs and that none is natural. McLuhan understood this process as operating simultaneously at the local and global levels. As he writes,

[…] electronic information now encompasses the entire planet, forming another hidden borderline or frontier whose action has been to rob many countries of their former identities. In the case of the First World, the Fourth World of electronic information dims down nationalism and private identities, whereas in its encounter with the Third World of India, China, and Africa, the new electronic information environment has the effect of depriving these people of their group identities. The borderline is [thus] an area of spiraling repetition and replay, both of inputs and feedbacks, both of interlace and interface, […] of rebirth and metamorphosis. (McLuhan, 1989: 165)

26It is this fraught territory that Kwame Anthony Appiah has been considering in a number of publications, of which the most recent is titled Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Appiah distinguishes cosmopolitanists from universalists in that the former acknowledge differences while the latter do not. “I am urging,” he writes,

  • 47 Note Cox and the notion of post-hegemony, which is crucial here. As Cox asks, “Can there be distinc (...)

that we should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement, but because it will help us get used to one another. If that is the aim, then the fact that we have all these opportunities for disagreement about values need not put us off. Understanding one another may be hard; it can certainly be interesting. But it doesn’t require that we come to agreement. (Appiah, 2006: 78)47

  • 48 As J. Berland writes, “the recognition that identities are not and need not be singular, that well (...)

27For Appiah, “Cultural purity is an oxymoron” (Appiah, 2006: 113). What troubles him are the “believers without borders” (Appiah, 2006: 137), those who “resist the call of all local allegiances, all traditional loyalties.” McLuhan similarly conceived of the borderline as a “meeting place of diverse worlds and conditions,” and thus as giving “a cosmopolitan character to Canada” (McLuhan, 1989: 164–5). It is for this reason that McLuhan formulated his counter-intuitive notion of the global in terms of the local and it is for this reason that he insisted—paradoxically—on the need for multiple borderlines48 in an increasingly globalized world.

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Notes

1 The image, which I reproduce at the beginning of this paper, appears in the section of the book called “Global Village Square”, p. 600–621.

2 See Cavell, 2005.

3 See Williams, 1974: ch. 4 passim.

4 See Bristow, 2006.

5 On the current fallout from NAFTA see Barlow 2005 and Urmetzer 2005.

6 M. Adams, 2003, Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada, and the Myth of Converging Values, Toronto, Penguin Canada. Adams has since revised this position, based on his most recent research, as presented in American Backlash: The Untold Story of Social Change in the United States, 2005, Toronto, Viking. See Bristow, 2006: 28.

7 This view of a Republican ascendancy is supported by Phillips in his new book, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (2006). Phillips is the author of The Emerging Republican Majority, first published in 1969. The November 2006 ascendancy of the Democrats suggests that motives in addition to the ideological ones are at play here as well.

8 The economic hegemony of the US is already in the process of decline, as Jeff Faux argues in The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost our Future—and What it Will Take to Win it Back (2006). It is particularly the trade and financial imbalances with Asia that concern Faux; once they spike, he argues, the crisis will take the form of Americans asking why they should continue to do global policing for nations richer than they are.

9 The title quotes from the late Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera, 1987.

10 On another front, the “Commentary” section of the Times Literary Supplement states that “the English nowadays tend to be shy of celebrating national identity. No one seems to know what the national identity is” (“Commentary”, 2005: 14). The reversal of these dynamics is also evident, as for example with the “parallel Muslim world” rising in the midst of contemporary Germany. See the works by S. Ates, The Great Journey into the Fire, N. Kelek, The Foreign Bride, S. Cileli, We’re Your Daughters, Not Your Honor, and the article in which these works are discussed, “The New Berlin Wall”, by Schneider.

11 The essay was recently quoted in a speech given by the Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean: “To quote Marshall McLuhan, Canadians are ‘the people who learned to live without the bold accents of the national ego-trippers of other lands’”. See “Barrett takes an order”, The Vancouver Sun, 19 November 2005, p. A3.

12 As economist Helliwell asserts, “Canada is a middle power in more than size and heft: it also lies between Europe and the US, and between Asia and the US, in a number of policy dimensions” (Helliwell, 2002: 77).

13 Frye, like McLuhan, had produced a cultural response to the centennial. The Modern Century (1967) proferred a consideration of Canada less sanguine than McLuhan’s, though it, too, ended by arguing that Canada went from pre-nationalism to post-nationalism without ever having quite been a nation.

14 Baudrillard has recently commented that “France is just a country; America is a concept. […] France is a byproduct of American culture. We are all in this; we are globalized” (Baudrillard, 2005: 22).

15 Helliwell comments that “it is more important than ever, from a global perspective, that Canada continue to maintain a sufficient degree of independence from the United States in order to be able to provide a mediating voice and to influence the evolution of the global architecture” (Helliwell, 2002: 90).

16 The major such distinction has to do with Canada’s enshrining of multiculturalism. Here the work of Will Kymlicka and of Charles Taylor is definitive. On the problematics of Canadian multiculturalism, see Gregg.

17 Similarly, France often likes to compare itself to the US, positioning itself as the socialist counter-environment to the hegemonic US. Kramer remarks that “[s]ince the end of the Second World War, Western Europe has been at the center of a labor migration that, in its proportions, rivals the great forced migrations of the Roman Empire; and since the nineteen-fifties and sixties, when Europe’s own empires unraveled, the strains of that demographic shock have been compounded by what could be called an implosion of difference, as the colonized fled the chaos—economic, tribal, political—that the colonizers left behind” (Kramer, 2005: 41). Kramer goes on to list the attempts to deal with the arising social issues: “There was the British ‘multicultural’ model—or, to put it perhaps more accurately, the ‘You will never be us’ model. There was the ‘We’ll support you, but please be invisible until you are us’ Scandinavian model. There was the ‘integrated but not assimilated’ oxymoron called the Dutch model. There was the ‘You’re guest workers, so you’ll be going home’ German model. […] The only thing most Europeans agreed on was that the ‘American model’ was wrong, although the American model wasn’t really a model at all but a kind of success ethic […] in which making money and moving up in the world was what made Americans out of strangers […]. The French model could be called the ‘You will be us’ imperative.” (Kramer, 2005: 41) The riots in France that took place in the fall of 2005 reversed these roles, however, the US emerging as counter-environmental to France in terms of policies dealing with race. See Crary: “The parallel soul-searching is taking place in two countries where politicians and pundits have long delighted in mocking the other’s perceived hypocrisies and flaws.” (Crary, 2005: A9)

18 “Today, it is the variegated nature of Europe, not its grand themes, that attracts attention. Norman Davies, in Europe: A History (1996), took the very long view, beginning with the ebb and flow of what (and where) Europe was in antiquity, and ending with a continent marginally less divided than in centuries past. Mark Mazower, in his marvelous Dark Continent (1998), provided a strikingly negative—in the photographic sense—portrait of Europe by sketching the real array of values that seemed to define Europeanness in the twentieth century: the overbearing power of the State, a skepticism about the workings of democracy, an uncritical loyalty to nation and tribe. Richard Vinen took things one step further. His History in Fragments (2000) abjured any grand narrative at all, rejecting even the standard periodization for the past century—pre-war, inter-war, post-war—and pulling away from high politics to prove the recesses of social history. Another way of approaching Europe is to chart the uses of history as a lever against the past, to examine the continent’s struggle to tell a story about itself that camouflages its own self-invention. This is Tony Judt’s method.” (King, 2005: 8)

19 See Helliwell, 2002: chapter 3 passim. See also Keating, 2001: 169: “[Canada] is itself a constitutional project with some parallels to the European one. It is not a nation-state in the classical European or the American sense, with a unified identity and powerful mechanisms for cultural integration, but nor is it a mere congeries of territories brought together for convenience. It is a plurinational state in which the principal parts, Quebec, the Rest of Canada, and the native peoples have different ways of being national, but which does share a set of common values and procedural assumptions. It was a fundamental misconception […] to try and forge a European or US-type of nation out of this; but it is equally misconceived to believe that breaking it up into its component parts would provide a more definitive solution.” See also Segal 2001.

20 As McLuhan states, “Every-where is now-here” (McLuhan, 1972: 297). Compare with Deleuze and Guattari: “Nowhere is now here.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1991: 95–6)

21 McLuhan had theorized that we live in a psychic landscape—that the world around us was a psychic phantasmagoria, so that “we dream awake,” and his concept of Canada as a psycho-geography derives from this notion. It is also possible that McLuhan was influenced by Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 attribution of “paranoia” to a specific style of American politics, as in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” first delivered as a lecture in 1963 and published in its full form the following year. Hofstadter argues that to the traditional political studies question of “Who gets what, when, how?” should be added the question, “Who perceives what public issues, in what way, and why?” (Hofstadter, 1964: viii-ix).

22 B. Berman and J. Lonsdale, 1991, Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa, vol. 2, Violence and Ethnicity, London, James Currey, as quoted by Bayart, 1996: xii-xiii.

23 The notion of intersubjectivity is relevant to a post-hegemonic articulation of sovereignty, as Robert Cox notes in his article “Towards a Post-hegemonic Conceptualization of World Order: Reflections on the Relevancy of Ibn Khaldun”. It is also relevant to Hardt and Negri, who comment that “[t]hrough circulation the multitude reappropriates space and constitutes itself as an active subject. When we look closer at how this constitutive process of subjectivity operates, we can see that the new spaces are described by unusual topographies, by subterranean and containable rhizomes—by geographical mythologies that mark the new paths of destiny” (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 397).

24 As Derrida remarks, “No geography, no ‘territorial’ determination, is thus pertinent any longer for locating the seat of these new technologies of transmission or aggression” (Borradori, 2003: 101).

25 It is important to specify that “environment” did not refer to nature in McLuhan’s usage of the term. He argued that nature had collapsed into culture; in other words, economic processes were equal in scale to those of nature and had in fact superseded them.

26 “Canada should stop trying to claim, or to prove, that it is ‘America’s best friend.’ The very idea is outdated. […] Canadians have acquired many of the habits we once liked to criticize our American cousins for having.” (Welsh, 2004: 49, 50) Welsh was consulted by the former Liberal government when it was in the process of formulating a new set of foreign policies.

27 See, for example, T. Kuehls, 1996, Beyond Sovereign Territory: The Space of Ecopolitics, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press; M. J. Shapiro and H. R. Alker, eds., 1996, Challenging Boundaries: Global Flows, Territorial Identities, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press; J. Hyndman, 2000, Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press; F. Debrix, 1999, Re-envisioning Peacekeeping: The United Nations and the Mobilization of Ideology, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

28 “Americans do not know but Canadians cannot forget that two nations, not one, came out of the American Revolution.” (Lipset, 1990: 1) Lipset’s binarisms appear dated in 2007, both methodologically and substantively. As Welsh remarks, “In Lipset’s famous framework, Canada is set up as the antithesis to the United States. Because we were established as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ country, it was inevitable that we would define ourselves in negative sense. We are not Americans. But this framework is becoming increasingly outdated. A series of changes, including globalization, immigration, and our own political and economic progress, has made it possible for a new generation of Canadians to be fiercely proud of their country but also favourably disposed (or at least neutral) toward the United States” (Welsh, 2004: 52). Note also Doughty’s comment that Lipset’s “empirical studies [are] not methodologically sophisticated” (Doughty, 2005: 4).

29 It should be noted in this context that even the idea of “Europe” is shifting under the influence of globalization and concomitant efforts to create a new European Union.

30 Ryan remarks in a review of T. Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 that “the history of Europe since 1945 has been a curious mixture of continuity with what went before and very sharp discontinuity” (Ryan, 2005: 19).

31 It is useful to position this discussion in terms of the ongoing debate concerning sovereignty, especially as it has been focused by the work of Carl Schmitt. For Schmitt, politics is fundamentally affective—bio-political and tribal—taking the form of the antagonism between friend and foe and thus pre-existing the state: “Tell me who your enemy is and I will tell you who you are.” His thought thus provides a counter-argument to globalization: “As long as a state exists, there will always be in the world more than just one state. A world state that embraces the entire globe and all of humanity cannot exist. The political world is a pluriverse, not a universe” (Schmitt, 1976: 53). Giorgio Agamben expands on these notions in Homo Sacer, where he argues that political community is not a form of belonging but a form of exclusion, and in support of this assertion he argues that the Nazi death camps are the place where the political most profoundly reveals itself: “[…] today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West” (Agamben, 1998: 23). This domain is biopolitical because its reduction to bare life is not just biological but a form of exclusion from the polis. What it asks us to confront is a polis that is comprised of the non-identical rather than of political identity. Here it would be possible to invoke Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the “flow” as it is related to deterritorialization by way of Margaret Atwood’s famous statement that if the United States can be accused of gross megalomania, the psychic state of Canada (and Atwood alludes here to McLuhan’s notion of the borderline state) is that of “paranoid schizophrenia” (Atwood, 1971: 62). For Deleuze, schizophrenia was the deterritorializing mode of being par excellence, in that it mediated between identity and non-identity.

32 As Margaret Moore and Allen Buchanan comment, “One of the most destabilizing aspects of the post-Cold War period has been the alteration of boundaries, which takes place outside the rule of law and often by force. […] Since the end of the Cold War, a number of new states have been created in the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Czechoslovakia, and there is little prospect of boundary stability and peace in the ethnically mixed, recently independent states of the first three regions, as there are a number of secessionist groups seeking to further carve them up” (Moore and Buchanan, 2003: 1).

33 McLuhan goes on to state that “[t]he superhuman scale of these electric ‘software’ vortices has created the Third World with its threat to the old industrial world of ‘hardware’” (McLuhan, 1989: 161). In this context, it is important to note Michael Denning, who critiques Eric Hobsbawm’s focus on “nation-states and national leaders. Not only are the social movements of the age of three worlds relatively absent […] [but] so too are the transnational corporations” (Denning, 2004: 28).

34 This is so in Carl Schmitt’s sense that the “border is the pre-eminent site where the controls and guarantees of the ‘normal’ juridical order are suspended (it is truly, in the modern constitutional state, the antidemocratic condition of democracy), the site where the ‘monopoly of legitimate violence’ takes the form of a preventive counterviolence. The nomos of the earth is thus the very order of borders: a violence that is supposed to domesticate violence by putting it in the service of the rationality of the state” (quoted by Balibar, 2004: 140).

35 This experience is shared by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, 2000, Boston, Back Bay Books, and Blink, 2005, New York, Little, Brown and Co. Gladwell, who grew up in Canada, has recently stated that “I hate to be this reductive, but an awful lot of my ideology, it’s just Canadian. Canadians like small, modest things, right? We don’t believe in boasting. We think the world is basically a good place. We’re pretty optimistic. We think we ought to take care of each other. […] And it so happens that to be a Canadian in America is to seem quite radical” (Donadio, 2006: 12–13).

36 Balibar notes a similar dynamic in the Balkan crisis of the 1990s, when Yugoslavia was seen both as outside and inside a Europe which was itself a shifting notion—and remains so (Balibar, 2004: 4–5). Note also Doug Saunders’s article, “New borders, old tensions key to volatile area’s future,” which details the lives of two farmers who “have no nation, no passport”, and whose “United Nations ID cards are not recognized at any national border” (Saunders, 2006: A1, A11).

37 A salutary effect of this approach is to heighten our awareness of borderlines within, such as those in Canada which demarcate the reservations onto which First Nations peoples continue to be legislated.

38 The internal quotation is from Kristeva, 1990, Nations Without Nationalism, trans. L. Roudiez, New York, Columbia University Press, p. 15.

39 See Cavell, 2005–6, originally delivered to the Royal Geographical Society, 4 September 2003.

40 Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, has said, notoriously, that Canada is simply the world’s greatest hotel: “You bring your own cultural baggage with you and the government provides room service, heat, water, and, on television, those quaint Heritage Minutes.” Quoted in Valpy, 2006: F7.

41 See especially Henighan, 2002: 133–156.

42 I am grateful to Crystal Chipuer for this reference.

43 Writing a decade later, Derrida mused similarly on the borderline: “What has happened […] is a sort of overrun [débordement] that spoils all these boundaries and divisions and forces us to extend the accredited concept, the dominant notion of a ‘text’ […] for strategic reasons, in part—a ‘text’ that is henceforth […] a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces.” (Derrida, 1986: 83–4)

44 If cultural comparison follows economic comparison, it is useful to note Helliwell, who comments that “any closing of income gaps between rich and poor countries will mean that an increasing fraction of world GDP and trade will take place outside North America, implying that, over the next fifty years, Canadian trade with overseas countries will grow faster than will Canadian trade with the United States” (Helliwell, 2002: 71).

45 McLuhan was explicit that “village” was not to be understood in a utopian sense, stating more than once that the village was a place of terror. In this sense, he would be opposed to Carl Schmitt’s belief that the ultimate political good would be a conflict free zone. As Habermas has noted, this is merely to assert one identity over another, and, as such, that the “ontologization of the friend-foe relation suggests that attempts at a cosmopolitan juridification of the relations between the belligerent subjects of international law are fated to serve the masking of particular interests in universalistic disguise” (Borradori, 2003: 53). Rather, his notion of the global village has much more in common with Appiah and his notion of “cultural contamination,” a notion Appiah develops in the “Global Villages” section of his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Note also Martha Nussbaum, 1994, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism”, The Boston Review, Fall, no 19.5.

46 As Borradori writes, “the essence of terror is not the physical elimination of whomever is perceived to be different but the eradication of difference in people, namely, of their individuality and capacity for autonomous action” (Borradori, 2003: 7).

47 Note Cox and the notion of post-hegemony, which is crucial here. As Cox asks, “Can there be distinct, thriving macro-societies, each with its own solidarity, each pursuing a distinct telos, which could coexist through a supra-intersubjectivitity? This supra-intersubjectivity would have to embody principles of coexistence without necessarily reconciling differences in goals” (Cox, 1996: 168).

48 As J. Berland writes, “the recognition that identities are not and need not be singular, that well being cannot be won for all independent of government, that states are not peoples, that diverse, mobile and loyal peoples are compatible with sovereign nations, and that place-specific narratives can be mobilized to progressive ends, are […] crucial principles for progressive politics in the global era” (Berland, 2005–6: 55).

Table des illustrations

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Titre Illustration 2
Légende Globes make my head spin. By the time I locate the place, they've changed the boundaries
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Auteur

Director, International Canadian Studies Centre, University of British Columbia

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2009

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