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From Thematic to Theoretical: The Historical Urge in Canadian Criticism

Myles Chilton

Canada is an experiment in nation building, a destabilisation of the European concept of nation-state. This destabilisation of these conceptual and historically defined borders is what lies behind an institutional urge in Canada to create a cultural nationalism typical of France, England or even Germany. It is an attempt to recuperate the idea of the nation-state through a rearward gaze that seeks to fill in the gaps or reconcile what history has not given Canada. Since the early 1960s, looking back and ‘correcting’ history has led to the creation of a national culture via the aggressive, deliberate promotion of indigenous literature. And at a certain stage in the rise of Canadian literature cultural nationalists believed that it was necessary to define a central, unifying theme for Canadians to identify with, to take the place of the lack of myth and revolutionary history that seemed to do the trick for Europe. The formulation of a Canadian theme and a school of thematic criticism answered this need.

That this creation of a nationalist thematic was a part of a historicist effort to realign the cultural development of Canada with that of the modern European nation-state has received little comment by critics. This is true despite the torrent of criticism, even vilification, aimed at thematic criticism and all other attempts to create a Canadian cultural nationalism. Thematic criticism has been tarred with the brushes of provincialism and a romantic disdain for any culture that is not ‘organic’ or ‘authentic.’ Furthermore, in literary terms, critics claimed that the thematic promoted by the school was simply wrong; moreover it engaged literature on socio-cultural grounds that took away from the ‘purely’ literary. Besides, critical theory had arrived and brought with it an exploding of the nationalist project; that Canadian literature could be deconstructed as well as any other literature was evidence enough that Canada no longer needed any overtly nationalistic criticism in which to locate a national identity. Yet the historicist impulse remained: in this paper I want to argue that the same requirement to ‘fill out’ Canadian cultural history to match it to a European trajectory marks the turn to critical theory as much as it did the emergence of thematic criticism. I will trace as briefly as possible the conditions for the growth of thematic criticism, the grounds for its dismissal, then analyse a text that signifies the turn to theory. My argument will centre on the moves in this text that, as I claim, miss the opportunities embedded in poststructuralist theory to challenge the critics’ underlying historicist assumptions. In other words, thematic criticism was historicized as a necessary if wrong-headed development in Canadian criticism, but a stage that any modern nation-state must go through. The subsequent acceptance of critical theory marks the next step, again, just like it had for the cultural development of France, Britain and even America.


With the American behemoth to the south and the maintenance of colonial ties to Britain, the growth of nationalist sentiment when it came would be a complicated affair of distancing and mimicry. Canadian nationalism could do little else but reflect the model provided by what Homi Bhabba calls “Anglo-American nationalism.”[i] It is not hard to see how powerful this model was. Here is Margaret Atwood describing the shaping moment in the development of her own nationalism, when she was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1960s.  

I found myself reading my way through excerpts from Puritan sermons, political treatises of the time of the American revolution, and anguished essays of the early nineteenth century, bemoaning the inferiority not only of American literary offerings but of American dress design, and wondering when the great American genius would come along. It sounded familiar. Nobody pretended that any of this was superb literature. All they pretended was that it was necessary for an understanding of the United States of America, and it was.[ii]


They [Americans] weren’t groping for their identities; they had gone through all that, I found, back in the post-revolutionary decades, with symptoms very much like ours – the short-run, little-read magazines, the petty literary squabbles, the adulation of foreign writers, the conflict between ‘native’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ schools, the worry over cultural imperialism . . . why there is no great American writer, etc.[iii]


As Corse claims, “Canadian worry about national identity and the lack of a national canon in the 1960s echoed American self-consciousness regarding the same fears and lacunae in the early 1800s.”[iv] Atwood, it would seem, internalised the American problem and mapped it onto the Canadian situation, resulting in the naturalized notion that a nation must have an identity that individuals can locate in the literature. The process of location, of identity forming, then, is the reading of a history of literature, the writing of a historiography of nationality.

The desire to emulate the United States and Britain (and the West in general) in the adoption of a literary based identity can be located in the unexamined historicism that animates Canadian discussions of cultural development. As the product of not one but two European colonisations, cultural nationalists like Atwood believed that Canadian culture would ‘grow’ as society developed, based on the ideology that political development would be reflected in cultural development, and that the growth would be even. As Dipesh Chakrabarty says of the situation of political modernity in the European colonies (and I must acknowledge that he is not referring to Canada in his argument), any Western critique of historicism must not “overlook the deep ties that bind together historicism as a mode of thought and the formation of political modernity in the erstwhile European colonies.”[v] As a European colony, and more erstwhile than most, Canada would self-consciously symbolize and enact this historicist “ ‘first in Europe, then elsewhere’ structure of global historical time,” because this historicism was “one important form that the ideology of progress or ‘development’ took from the nineteenth century on.”[vi] This claim applies to Canadian cultural nationalism as much as it does to the political situations of the non-Western countries Chakrabarty is writing about, and apropos to my argument could be rephrased “first in the rest of the West, then in Canada.”[vii]

Yet the reality dawned that Canada was not developing as it should. The problem of what Canada was, or more to the point, was not, motivated Margaret Atwood to write a thematic “guidebook” to Canadian literature. The result, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, is an attempt to answer certain questions that Atwood claims had been exercising Canadian writers, critics and students with growing frequency since the imposition in the late 1960s of Canadian literature courses at high schools, community colleges and universities. The first, most important question was “ ‘What’s Canadian about Canadian literature?’ ”[viii] This was followed by “Why should we be bothered?”[ix] The latter question, Atwood argues, “shouldn’t have to be answered at all because, in any self-respecting nation, it would never even be asked. But that’s one of the problems: Canada isn’t a self-respecting nation and the question does get asked.”[x] Therefore she writes Survival, and in so doing crystallizes a growing critical and sociological drift towards defining the Canadian identity.

Survival operates under the assumption that “To know ourselves, we must know our own literature; to know ourselves accurately, we need to know it as part of literature as a whole.”[xi] The echoes of Matthew Arnold and F. R. Leavis are obvious, the echoes of Northrop Frye are less so; yet they are there along with a series of romantic assumptions about national character, the role of literature as an expression of same, and the paradoxical notion that literature is an autonomous whole consisting of fiction, poetry and drama. Other prominent Canadian writers and critics at this time, most notably Frye, were with Atwood trying to pin down the thematic particularity that would distinguish Canadian literature from all other (read: Western) national literatures, and in echo of the romantic/modernist paradox, how Canadian literature partook of the universals that all (again read: Western) literature expressed. What these critics agreed on was basically that Canadian literature worked on the theme that the wilderness was a malevolent space, and that the only response was, after the title of Atwood’s book, survival. Frye’s more nuanced formulation was the ‘garrison mentality’, the idea that the small, isolated pioneer communities form protective psychological barrier to the surrounding “huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting”;[xii] and that the garrison mentality permeated Canadian literature both inter-textually and as a reflection of persistence of this mentality in the social sphere. It could be argued that Frye was recuperating rather than prescribing a thematic; the reception of his analysis, however, was a creative misreading, leading other critics to posit similar notions. The blend of two similar views of Canadian literature promoted by two such prominent literary figures, and the sense that these critical moves were ‘natural’ echoes of what had occurred in other national literatures, encouraged a number of critics and students to think along these lines: the chorus rose and a school of criticism was formed.

But opposition to thematic criticism within Canadian critical circles was not long in coming. The seminal text in this counter-thematic criticism was Frank Davey’s 1976 article “Surviving the Paraphrase.”[xiii] In this essay, coming just four years after Survival, Davey criticizes the thematicists for trying to rope together the amorphous entity called CanLit under artificial means. The themes, he argues, do not stand up to literary scrutiny, not to mention the fact that the whole idea of thematicizing a national literature reeks of provincialism. Two thrusts emerge from Davey’s critique: one, that such overtly nationalistic themes are politically and socially suspect; and two, that thematic criticism takes the critic and the text over the literary boundary into cultural and social criticism, both of which detract from a purely literary engagement with the work. Davey offers various alternatives, including phenomenology, structuralism, etc to illustrate that Canadian texts can stand up to any of the transnational and non-nationalistic critical methods then available to the literary scholar and critic. For all of his anti-provincialism, however, what is implicit in his argument is an overriding nationalism, i.e. our Canadian works are good enough to stand up to international scrutiny, and we Canadian critics are good enough and cosmopolitan enough to use these transnational strategies.

What underlies Davey’s argument as much as those of the thematicists is the romantic notion of the ‘maturity’ of a national culture: Canadian critics, pro- or anti-thematic, were conceiving of literary and/or cultural criticism in a historicist mode; they put their national literature into a continuum of development from texts dominated by the metropoles to those that reflected the inner world of the nation’s people. Like all other modern nations, Canada must have its national literature to define itself, and to represent itself to the outside world (though the thematicists spoke more to the former, while Davey saw its utility for the latter). The development of this cultural modernity was not exactly like any other nation’s, but it shared in the basic overall nationalistic project.



In 1986 the University of Ottawa marked the arrival in Canada of critical theory, fresh from Paris and New Haven, with a symposium called Future Indicative. And although it was ten years after “Surviving the Paraphrase,” thematic criticism was very much on the minds of those who gave papers. As John Moss writes in the introduction of the book that came from the symposium, “Future Indicative is a continuation of the possibilities evoked”[xiv] by having put thematic criticism into historical perspective; which is to say that once thematic criticism had been historicized as a point in the developmental trajectory of Canadian literary criticism, the doors were now open to a multitude of critical approaches, with the proviso that they continue to mark points in that same developmental trajectory. The contextualisation of this as a book in the history of Canadian literary critical development and the underlying assumptions of the critics involved – which I will discuss with more specific reference shortly – demonstrate that the historicist project had not been abandoned. It had just assumed a more complex disguise.[xv]

This point requires some emphasis. To return to Moss’s introduction, he argues that “[t]he whole was never intended to be more than the sum of its parts”, that each article is meant to stand on its own; on the other hand, the reader (like the conference attendee) will note that “[t]here are connections among these papers quite independent of their placement in the program or on the page. . . . one recognizes just how connected all the disparate elements of this critical extravaganza really are” (2). Unfortunately, Moss gives no indication of the substance of the connections among the papers, other than to say rather banally that “[t]he intention was not to sustain an argument but to provide a context – a context in which the intersection of critical theory and Canadian literature could be experienced as a multivariate phenomenon, and not a nexus of limited possibilities” (2). Then he marks the historical moment of this conference, and book, by saying that “[a]fter listening to, and especially after reading, the work of these critics, I for one will never again read Canadian writing in quite the same way” (3). This remark implies revolution, one that he elaborates in a subsequent paragraph.

While most Canadian criticism in the last decade or so has continued to serve the perceived social imperatives of a nation in perpetual adolescence, here and there a few mavericks, like those in this book, have been thinking about thinking about literature, and writing the things they think. They have been deconstructing the box in which we have tried to contain our culture; not peering over the garrison walls but walking right through them. Suddenly, people working from a literary base which includes Wacousta and Carman along with Wordsworth and Arnold are bringing critical theory from Paris and Oxford and New Haven to bear . . . on literary experience in their own country. If Future Indicative accomplishes nothing else, it has brought enough of the best of these people together and into the open that there can be no turning back. Canadian literature has changed, because the assumptions underlying our experience of it have been called into question; Canadian criticism has been sanctioned as an intellectual activity; and the two have been expressed as complementary endeavours of the human imagination. Suddenly, it seems reasonable to think about critical theory in a Canadian context. (3)

The historicizing project of Future Indicative comes through sharply in this passage. Lexically, we note the adverbs of time (“in the last decade,” “suddenly” repeated twice) and the use of the past perfect. The reference to the novel Wacousta and poet Bliss Carman invokes the canonical literary history of Canada; linking them to Wordsworth and Arnold unites the history of Canadian literary criticism with that of the metropolis. Here is the connection that Moss speaks of but does not name: these papers may stand as no more than the sum of their parts in terms of their discrete critical engagements with texts, but in their historical context Moss shouts from the rooftops that Canadian criticism is a big boy now, and can use Derrida, Bakhtin, Foucault, Lévi-Strauss, Saussure, Barthes et cetera as a fully grown up member of the world literary critical club. Indeed, Canadian criticism has been sanctioned as an intellectual activity: Moss presumably refers to the attitudes of the Canadian critics at the symposium, but you also get the feeling he means that this turn to critical theory earns Canadian literary criticism the approval of the Modern History of Literary Criticism.

Paper after paper in Future Indicative speaks to the awesome possibilities of the Canadian critic’s embrace of critical theory. Barbara Godard’s opening essay, tracing developments in Canadian literary criticism throughout the twentieth century to the arrival of poststructuralist theories, acknowledges in conclusion that within her

critique of presuppositions and analysis of the logic and ideology of these various textual strategies advocated by Canadian critics, there is nonetheless a perverse logic at work in the pattern of borrowing, one that foregrounds the Canadian ‘plus’ [a contextually bound reading]. Through its recombinant genetics, this new critical theory seeks to unmask power and to focus on the study of [to paraphrase Todorov (1971)] ‘Canadian forms of language and language alone.’”[xvi]


Heather Murray’s strategy in “Reading for Contradiction in the Literature of Colonial Space” is to place Canadian literature in a dialectic between the text and historical context. The importance of history has been there all along, she argues, claiming that Frye’s expressionist-mimetic paradigm contained a theoretical concern with the situation of Canadian literature vis-à-vis “an awareness of the writer’s ‘social and historical setting’ ”; and that Canadian literature must be studied as a part of Canadian life “adjacent to the realm of the literary ‘itself’ ”.[xvii] Frye chooses the historical over the literary mode, rejecting evaluative criticism of the Literary for the contextualised analysis and criticism of literature connected to Life. Murray then argues for a reconciliation between the seemingly divergent aesthetic and social critical models that she finds embedded in Frye’s originary separation of the two:

Here I would like to track some ways in which English-Canadian literature has been read (read for coherence) and move on to a consideration of ways that it might be read (read for contradiction). I will refer to some theoretical systems which seem at times very remote from Canadian literary study (specifically, Marxist, deconstructionist, psychoanalytic, and feminist modes of inquiry), to suggest that these may offer ways of reading more suited to and accepting of the already contradictory writing of colonial space, and that these may help us to develop a criticism attentive to both literature and history, a form of discourse analysis. Here I am trying to address myself in the most basic way to the questions: Why should Canadian literary scholars do forms of contemporary critical work, and what might such a criticism look like if we did? (73-4)

Murray works through analyses of New Criticism, Leavisian criticism, structuralism and thematic criticism while indicating their relations to and limitations for Canadian literature. Thematic criticism is limited by its “totalising tendency” (76), as evidenced in Davey’s indictment that author Y speaks for all Canadians (and the corollary, the reductionist formula that argues that Canadian literature is about theme X). She does argue the need for a retrospective evaluation of the thematic project because of its “integral role in the (thoroughly admirable) effort to read/teach/write ‘Canadian,’ and to its serious consideration of so-called ‘minor’ writers (such as women), but also to the ambition and complexity of the project” (75). But then she cites Paul Stuewe, another anti-thematicist, who argues that thematic criticism is limited because it is “statistically fallacious and pseudo-scientific” (77); and that “Canadian literature no longer requires such hot-house nurturing; it should be assessed in ‘traditional literary terms’ ” (77). Stuewe, along with B. W. Powe in A Climate Charged, argue that “Canadian literature must be placed in an international context, and the search for national identity give place to a quest for ‘human identity’ and universal values.”[xviii] These echoes of T. S. Eliot form critical counter-moves against Frye and other ‘academic’ criticisms that widen the divide between those critics who are concerned with literary quality and evaluation, and those who are doing “historical or documentary research…based on the assumption of a past which is extra-textual, available, and recoverable” (Murray 77). Currently, however, most critics are between these poles trying to bring them together and not doing a terribly good job of it. “How then,” Murray asks, “are we to fulfil both terms of the critical mandate, in developing a criticism attentive both to the text and to history” (78)? Her solution is “reading for contradiction” (78). She then turns to Eagleton, Althusser, and Marx to develop the idea that “these criticisms should operate in the service of a discourse analysis, by which I mean . . . the discursive organization of Canadian literature and literary study” (80).

A ‘theorized’ examination of Canadian literature would, therefore, begin from two basic premises. First, it would acknowledge that all texts have a history and are in history – and so is their criticism. Second, it would assume that there is no history with or without the text, that all histories are ‘literature,’ arranged and selected in certain ways. And just as there is no Literature of intrinsic qualities of timeless and context-less significance, so there is no History available to an unmediated discernment, discovery, or recovery. (81)

Criticism should be historicized as well as be a meta-historiography. But Murray does not address what ‘kind’ of history – although, in fairness, her discourse analysis would seem to leave space for that – but again we are left with the idea that this strategy would mark a progression in the history of Canadian literary practice because of the historicist account of Canadian literary criticism she traces in order to formulate her argument. It does not itself go beyond literary and historiographical concerns to discuss the political issues that arise within the dissonant contexts of transnational literary theories and domesticising Canadian literary criticism; i.e. how the nation-state could be transformed into a critical space when its existence is assumed under the subtitle Literary Theory and Canadian Literature. She seems to be concerned with the literary, and the critical, but not the social in any real sense, other than to say that there is a link between criticism and history.

Though there is a sense of belatedness, it is balanced by the notion that the national situation of Canada – and not any personal shortcoming on the part of any individual or sub-set of individuals, not even the thematic critics – prevents its intellectuals from being perfectly au courant. But current with what? With the critical trends emendating from primarily European, and latterly, American universities. As Barbara Godard writes at the end of her article, “[t]hat all these theories are themselves imported with their carpet bags stuffed with ideological positions is yet another paradox: a new colonization to free oneself from colonial status” (46-7). In other words, Canadian critics are still beholden to the metropolitan centres and American cultural hegemony, much as the nation at large is still wrestling with postcolonial residues and the domination of the United States. Yet critical theory, as Godard indicates, taken as a whole is a strategy for opening up and challenging existing social structures and their textual representations.

The paradox she identifies is played out in Future Indicative: it is even confronted directly when the issue of internal cultural domination is analysed. As Francesco Loriggio argues in his article “The Question of the Corpus: Ethnicity and Canadian Literature,” ‘ethnic’ texts, if they are written in English or French (Canada’s two official languages), must be read within the borders language indicates, and as such must become a part of the fundamental and historically inescapable dialectic in which the national is the dimension of reception for the ethnic writer, “in relation to which he or she acquires his or her authoritativeness.”[xix] Thus ethnicity is a reaction to modernization (in its sentimental or romantic yearning for a past in the home country) but is also engendered by it. Ethnic texts as a result enter the Canadian literary canon by reflecting on their moment in Canadian social history, by making visible the internal borders that a century of federalization and cultural centralization (by the thematic critics) have attempted to efface. And if the latter effort was a reaction to the lack of Canadian myths, the lack of ghosts, then ethnicity speaks not only to this but also “how to react to the superabundance of un-monumentalised, nondescript, small-time, small-space ghosts hidden in every household or under our skin” (Loriggio 65). Loriggio argues that the outcome is a multi-focal and displaced subjectivity, a different ontological condition that “takes the guise of the sociocultural” (65).

But in the end, Loriggio’s position is merely an extension of the national stocktaking promoted by Frye, challenging and necessary though it is for a political entity comprised of so many self-styled multiethnic cultural spaces, but not challenging enough in terms of the theoretical engagement Loriggio nominates as essential for the task. The lack of revolutionary deconstruction of the nationalistic urge seems to support the accusation against critical theory articulated by Homi Bhabba in The Location of Culture:

What does demand further discussion is whether the ‘new’ languages of theoretical critique (semiotic, postructuralist, deconstructionist and the rest) simply reflect those geopolitical divisions and their spheres of influence. Are the theorists of ‘Western’ theory necessarily collusive with the hegemonic role of the West as a power bloc? Is the language of theory merely another power ploy of the culturally privileged Western elite to produce a discourse of the Other that reinforces its own power-knowledge equation? (20-21)

If the project of Future Indicative is to hoist Canadian criticism up into the internationalist discourse, is it to solidify Canada’s position in relation to the hegemony of “Anglo-American nationalism,” which while politically was never in doubt, culturally might have been the weak cousin? The reasons for reading Future Indicative this way stem from the strangely absent engagement with the other – specifically, Canada’s place as a postcolonial and post-modern nation – and the concomitantly abbreviated critical engagement with the ideology of any body of criticism that recognizes itself as such, in this case, contextualised and nominalised (in the subtitle of the book) Canadian literary criticism. Terry Goldie is an exemplar of this lack: when after deconstructing several ‘canonical’ texts and reading them through Foucault, he comes back to square one, saying, “[a]s I seek to uncover Pierre Machery’s ‘ideological moment,’ the text’s un-revealed centre, I must recognize and attempt to uncover the centre from which I search. That centre convinces me of the need for interestedness and also defeats any temptation to a general critical liberation.”[xx] His centre, his context, is Canada, and no further attempt to deconstruct it is made in his paper.

Goldie’s not going far enough serves as a metonymical example of what is missing from the book: a voice from the postcolonial debates that were at that time an established discursive zone throughout Commonwealth literature and criticism. As far as I can tell, prior to Sylvia Söderlind’s 1991 Margin/Alias: Language and Colonization in Canadian and Québécois Fiction,[xxi] there was no significant Canadian contribution to postcolonial criticism. Thus it might well never have occurred to those involved to think that post-colonialism was a theoretical discourse relevant to the Canadian situation – as a former colony of France and Britain, a colonizer of its native peoples, and in the minds of many, including Frye, a cultural colony of the United States. The unfortunate result is that Future Indicative lacks the challenge Bhabba takes upon himself in The Location of Culture:

I want to take my stand on the shifting margins of cultural displacement – that confounds any profound or ‘authentic’ sense of a ‘national’ culture or an ‘organic’ intellectual – and ask what the function of a committed theoretical perspective might be, once the cultural and historical hybridity of the postcolonial world is taken as the paradigmatic place of departure. (21)

Why Future Indicative situates itself in another discourse paradigm is, as I have been arguing, because of the residual weight of the ideological forces that produced the centralizing images and attitudes of thematic criticism. The essays are all hemmed in by that very thing Moss takes pains to deny, a nexus of limited possibilities. All the while, they were restricted by the historicist imperative; they have to follow Moss and return to the historical moment, which their application of theory is marking in the life of Canadian culture. They have followed Davey’s injunction to stick to the texts at the cost of going back to address the extra-literary issues that concerned thematic criticism; i.e. the use of literature to reflect national identity. Thus it is that Loriggio can say, “[t]he fact is that is that literary theory has always assumed that literature is produced in an environment self-evidently unitary. When we read about German or Italian or French or English texts, we imagine them, as we have been accustomed to do, as components of an indivisible entity in which language, culture and sometimes territory coincide” (56). Loriggio, like the other critics, resists the potential of poststructuralist theory to question the historicism that informs their historical embrace of literary theory. I will now conclude by arguing that a poststructuralist positioning cannot but question these historicist assumptions.



It would be unfair to brand the critics represented in Future Indicative as being blinded by patriotism. That they are all working against the provincialism of the Leavisite critical attitudes that helped shape thematic criticism is proof enough of this. What I am arguing is that Canada’s postcolonial political situation demands a more social, more extra-literary critical engagement with literature. Instead of simply identifying ways to move on from thematic criticism, it would be better if Future Indicative could identify the extra-literary social and political discursive zones where critical theory can become relevant to the Canadian situation.

The emergence in Canada over the last twenty years of regionalist identifications and the growth of regional political parties has put enormous pressure on the concept of a centralized polity, and the fact that separatism has gained new strength not only Quebec but the Western provinces is evidence, though of an extreme form, that a unified idea of Canada and ‘Canadianness’ is at best a dream. Postmodern writing and the emergence of the critical discourses that Linda Hutcheon locates within Canadian postmodernism – those essentially poststructuralist strategies, including post-colonialism, with the element of a probing meta-criticism – offer the best (re)reading of all the things Canada was once thought to be, and all of those things that Canada might be in the process of being.

Post-modern is a slippery term. Appropriately enough, I am basing my usage of it on that suggested by Hutcheon with reference to Canadian postmodernism. She argues that “Canada’s own particular moment of cultural history does seem to make it ripe for the paradoxes of postmodernism, by which I mean those contradictory sets of establishing and then undercutting prevailing values and conventions in order to provoke a questioning, a challenging of ‘what goes without saying’ in our culture.”[xxii] The ex-centric position that the post-modern writer embodies challenges notions of centrality in and the centralization of culture; a relation between centre and margin that can be translated to the political situation of Canada: “Since the periphery or the margin might also describe Canada’s perceived position in international terms, perhaps the post-modern ex-centric is very much a part of the identity of the nation” (Hutcheon 3). Within postmodernism’s challenges to borders as limits, borders become “the post-modern space par excellence, the place where new possibilities exist” (Hutcheon 4).

In this border the centre is challenged and, paradoxically, acknowledged. As we have seen with Future Indicative, the latter threads the text while the former, the possibilities of challenging the centre, are foregone. On the one hand, there is the persistence of a centralizing force (which leads Hutcheon to ask, wryly, “[w]hy do Canadians still produce books in 1987 called A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies?”) that defers deconstruction because this “is possible only when those myths and identity have first been defined” (6). On the other hand, the idea of national myths, identity, and that of the even development of society and culture belongs to an older model of the nation-state, and by now – and certainly by the time of Future Indicative – the conceptual models are multiple to the point where critical theory has to be understood as that set of discursive practices that offer the potential to arrest these historicizing tendencies, at least in their institutional manifestations, and to reverse the moribund rate of intellectual change. As Homi Bhabba argues, critical theory contains this revisionary force, which will become clearer “if we first see that many poststructuralist ideas are themselves opposed to Enlightenment humanism and aesthetics. They constitute no less than a deconstruction of the moment of the modern, its legal values, its literary tastes, its philosophical and political categorical imperatives” (32). I am conflating post-structuralism with postmodernism in a way that Bhabba (among others) might object to; nonetheless, the strangeness vis-à-vis the modern that the Canadian experiment represents creates a discursive space that questions usages and demands provisionality.

It is worth noting that not long after Future Indicative a new critical emphasis on post-modern fiction, as well as postcolonial criticism became a sort of norm in Canadian universities. With a few years of Hutcheon’s The Canadian Post-modern (and her slightly previous A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988)), came the critical anthology Post-modern Fiction in Canada (1992) (published, it should be noted, in Europe, and featuring articles in the main by European Canadianists); then in 1997 came New Contexts of Canadian Criticism and its heavily postcolonial and multicultural engagement.[xxiii] That these books and the critics involved were influenced by the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional crises of the 1980s and the looming Quebec referendum (which finally came in 1995) is a salutary reflection of the relation between critical theory and political uncertainty. That these books feature the radical questioning and refusal to slip into the historicist stream of even cultural development underlines the weakness of this ideology when applied to the amorphous political entity called Canada. These texts finally – to risk using a word that could be construed as historicist – confront Canadian literature and criticism in line with Bhabba’s assertion that critical theory should be more of an engagement with the idea that “history is happening – within the pages of theory, within the systems and structures we construct to figure the passage of the historical” (25). The resistance is timely, in as much as it questions how Canadian cultural history has been construed teleologically, and because it exposes and negotiates the constructedness of Canadian culture.

Myles Chilton is a member of the Committee on the History of Culture at the University of Chicago

[i]. Bhabba, Homi K, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 20. Further references to this text will be given parenthetically.

[ii]. Atwood, Margaret, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (Toronto: Anansi, 1982), 382.

[iii]. Ibid. 87.

[iv]. Corse, Sarah M, Nationalism and Literature: The Politics of Culture in Canada and the United States (Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 1997), 55.

[v]. Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 7.

[vi]. Ibid. 7.

[vii]. It could be broken down further still: Canada’s deeply regionalist polity has produced its own version of the historicist narrative on a national rather than imperial scale; however, that discussion is beyond the scope of this paper.

[viii]. Atwood, Margaret, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Toronto: Anansi, 1972), 11.

[ix]. Ibid. 11.

[x]. Ibid. 14.

[xi]. Ibid. 17.

12. Frye, Northrop, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (Toronto: Anansi, 1971), 225.

[xiii]. Davey, Frank, “Surviving the Paraphrase,” Canadian Literature 70 (1976): 5-13.

[xiv]. Moss, John, “Introduction: The Presence of Text,” in Future Indicative: Literary Theory and Canadian Literature, ed. John Moss (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1987), 1. Further references to Moss’s article will be given parenthetically.

[xv]. At this point I should acknowledge Frank Davey’s “Reading Canadian Reading,” the leading chapter of the book Reading Canadian Reading (Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1988). Davey makes much the same argument I am making in this essay: in his critique of Barbara Godard’s review of the history of Canadian criticism, he remarks that “[u]neasily present in her story were the humanist myths of continuity and progress – Canadian scholars had come out of the wilderness of thematic criticism” (2). However, his focus expands to a broader analysis of Canadian literary critical texts of the 1980s, upon which he develops a critique of their blindness to the national origins to the supposed universality of critical theory. The end result of Davey’s critique, however, is a retrenching of a  nationalistic literary project: Canadian critics should recognize the French provenance of Derrida, etc., and learn to incorporate something of the more fluid Canadian situation into their own thinking. 

[16]. Godard, Barbara, “Structuralism/Post-Structuralism: Language, Reality and Canadian Literature” in Future Indicative, 47. Further references to Godard’s article will be given parenthetically.

[17]. Murray, Heather, “Reading for Contradiction in the Literature of Colonial Space” in Future Indicative, 73. Further references to Murray’s article will be given parenthetically.

[18]. Powe, B.W., A Climate Charged (Oakville ON: Mosaic, 1984), 92.

[19]. Loriggio, Francesco, “The Question of the Corpus: Ethnicity and Canadian Literature” in Future Indicative, 65. Further references to Loriggio’s article will be given parenthetically.

[20]. Goldie, Terry, “Signs of the Themes: The Value of a Politically Grounded Semiotics” in Future Indicative, 91.

[21]. Söderlind, Sylvia, Margin/Alias: Language and Colonization in Canadian and Québécois Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).

[22]. Hutcheon, Linda, The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988), 3. Further references to this text will be given parenthetically.

[23]. Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (London: Routledge, 1988). Postmodern Fiction in Canada, eds. D’haen, Theo and Hans Bertens (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992). New Contexts of Canadian Criticism, eds. Heble, Ajay, Donna Palmateer Pennee and J. R. (Tim) Struthers  (Peterborough ON: Broadview, 1997).