The Beaver Bites Back: American Popular Culture in Canada David H. Flaherty and Frank E. Manning (eds.). Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993. 356 pp.

by Gaile McGregor

Let me begin by saying that this is a book which will be useful for specialists and students alike, if only for the range of its coverage and the balance of the views it represents. From broad-brush histories like Bruce Feldthusen's essay on nati onal television policy and Paul Rutherford's on the Americanization of Canadian mass culture to more closely focused pieces like John MacCloon's comparison of Canadian and American approaches to Olympic sport or Andrew and Harriet Lyons's cross-cu ltural study of television evangelism, its components are scholarly without being pedantic, and accessible without being superficial. Nor is it only information which is being purveyed here. The editors have selected and arranged their material in s uch a way as to highlight complexities rather than, as is so often the case in "critical'' collections, oversimplifying issues in order to push preferred solutions. Exemplary here is the dialogue set up in the first section between Feldthusen and G. Stuart Adam. By the time I finished the first essay, I was convinced that "real'' public broadcasting (as opposed to the hybrid CBC) was both feasible and necessary. By the time I finished the second, I was equally convinced of the danger that an all-public system would simply become a creature of the State. Now -- well, who knows? The only certainty one takes away from this exchange is that it's not a simple matter. This isn't an isolated instance. One of the more interesting things abou t this collection is the way it functions to force engagement with, rather than simply consumption of, ideas. As Thelma McCormack makes explicit in her discussion of the pornography debate, in giving just consideration to the complexities and alte rnatives of the field, the book makes us see discourse on culture as itself a pop cultural artifact crying out for interpretation.

Having said that much, I also have to say that the book, like the discourse, is not without its problems. The most compelling of these is signalled in the dissonance between Frank Manning's introduction and the component essays he summarizes. Exc ellent as a roadmap, in its winkling out of unspoken and at times unrealized subtext, this piece also points up elisions in the research itself. One point of confusion is the basic and obviously important question of whether there is or is not a d istinctive Canadian culture. Manning himself sees the material as revealing compelling differences between Canada and the United States. The thrust of almost all the generalizing essays that follow, however, is to downplay, trivialize, or even deny such differences. Coming from entirely opposite political poles, Bernard Ostry (an ardent protectionist) and Paul Rutherford (who sees protectionism as an elite plot) agree at least that the Americanization process is to all intents and purposes c omplete. I have to say that I am on Manning's side here: taken collectively these papers clearly elucidate contrast. The question one has to ask oneself, then, is why this fact should be most invisible to those whose breadth of coverage should give them the best view. In some cases the answer is both simple and unproblematic: it's a matter of scale. If, like Andrew Wernick, one privileges global phenomena as a kind of theoretical always-already, then one is unlikely to recognize the differen ces that emerge at lower levels, no matter how salient. This doesn't mean there is anything wrong with studies like Wernick's -- here as elsewhere the macro view provides a useful horizon -- but it does mean they are of limited value for "getting at '' purely national features. (Something too often forgotten by the recent batch of theoretically oriented cultural critics is that a model only has explanatory value at the scale -- and on the ground -- from which it is derived.) It's not Wernick and his ilk who comprise the real problem here, though. The real problem both in this book and in the field of Canadian cultural and communications studies as a whole is that there is an absence in the middle where the object of investigation should be.

What do I mean by this? In the simplest sense it has something to do with too much attention to selected trees and not enough appreciation for the forest. Stuart Adam claims in his aforementioned response to Feldthusen that popular culture can on ly be understood as part of a continuum which includes "patterns of social and political organization ... memories, values, norms, and behaviour ... administrative, political, legal, and ... educational systems ... [along with] the symbols, art, a nd literature ... inscribed against the backdrop of these systems'' (80). "Put differently,'' he concludes, "the starting point should be history and politics rather than [secondary phenomena like] television'' (81). Adam is right. With the demise o f a liberal arts ideal of broad education, many of the people working in communications and even cultural studies these days simply don't have the background knowledge of Canadian culture and society to be able to put specific phenomena into any k ind of informing context. Making things worse, in many cases the void is simply filled with prevalidated narratives of capitalist and patriarchal privilege drawn from transnational theory. The problem with this is not the fact of imported ideas but the absence of the critical wherewithal to test them against local particulars. Manning has it right when he says that Canadian social research has been fixated on "one-dimensional models of domination and dependency'' rather than investigating th e far more complex state of affairs that actually prevails.

Nowhere is this more true than in the field represented by this book. Scholars writing about Canadian culture do, at least collectively (and on this point I would have to modify Adam's complaint somewhat), look at the history, the economics, the politics, and even the players. They don't commonly, on the other hand, see any need to attend to the substance -- the meanings or even the forms -- of the "thing'' that they are purporting to talk about. Rutherford is typical here. "Many of CBC- T V Toronto's successful productions,'' he says, "whether Front Page Challenge, Wayne and Shuster, Wojek, or King of Kensington, were [no more than] variations on types of programming pioneered in the United States'' (275). This generalization is all the more puzzling when it is clear from his bibliography, here and elsewhere, that the author is familiar with (for instance) Mary Jane Miller's excellent work, again here and elsewhere, on the ways in which Canadian genres and programs have diffe red from their ostensible models, in many cases to such an extent as to defy comparison entirely. Even apart from the misreading of secondary sources, though, it would be clear from Rutherford's lumping dismissals that he simply hasn't bothered read ing/viewing/listening to the materials he is talking about. Presumably he is one of the majority who, he claims (inaccurately, according to more reliable research), simply don't "like'' Canadian culture. This ignorance is not, unfortunately, an an omaly.

Why? Part of the answer simply has to do with the way labour is divided in Canadian cultural research. Just as "high'' culture is dismissed as irrelevant and elitist by Rutherford and his ilk, interpretation (if considered at all) is dismissed as the province of specialists. This factionalization is unfortunate on all counts. Leftist prejudices notwithstanding, for instance, investigation shows that high and mass-mediated cultures are not oppositionally related in Canada, as the blanket t heory implies, but use similar and often identical strategies and positions to encode/enact across-the-board resistance to the American vision which for us comprises dominant ideology. Consequently, far from being irrelevant, paying attention to the much more extensively studied fields of art and literature can provide some important leads for research into popular materials. So even that's a red herring. The damage done by subdividing the field is nothing, however, compared to the damage do ne by subdividing responsibilities. The failure to understand how texts "work,'' as McCormack points out, leads researchers to make grossly simplistic assumptions about cause and effect. McCormack's own concern is with the political implications of such naivete for the issue of censorship. It's not only in the political arena that a price is paid for ignorance, however. Rutherford's obliviousness to difference is a clear example of what happens when, as MacAloon puts it, one assumes that cul tural products are as "transparent'' as any other consumer good. "Discourses centring so thoroughly on ownership, appropriation, diffusion, and colonization,'' he writes, "produce their own form of mystification in which cultural goods are reduced to mere instrumentalities'' (127). If MacAloon is right -- and all my own observations suggest that he is -- then the only way to understand what "use-value'' really means in this venue is to make some attempt to understand what "use'' means in thi s venue. This means learning something about the history of forms, not just of commodities. It means developing at least minimum competence in interpretation. Most important of all, it means learning how to make more critical use of secondary sour ces. Why "most important''? The problem that both underwrites and exacerbates the ignorance and disinterest of generalist scholars like Rutherford is that in today's climate the specialist discourse to which they are accustomed to defer the issue of meaning is itself inadequate to fill in the blanks.

The "Stage, Screen, and Soundtrack'' section of this collection provides a good representation of what is available to the communications researcher these days by way of interpretive guidance. Three out of the four papers here (Michael Taft's on popular music, Seth Feldman's on Canadian cinema, and Charline Poirier's on Quebec burlesque), though interesting and competent, are narrow in both their subject matter and their methods. Whatever they achieve in their own terms -- and this is con siderable -- because these essays neither generalize from nor theorize about their findings, they tell us virtually nothing about what they might "mean'' for adjacent fields or for Canadian culture as a whole. Like the majority of their ilk, conse quently, they are individually too specialized to have much use or appeal for either the student in quest of guidance or the colleague in quest of background. The only piece in the section which does attempt to generalize, on the other hand -- Reid Gilbert's "Mounties, Muggings, and Moose: Canadians Icons in a Landscape of American Violence'' -- is a textbook case of what's wrong with Canadian cultural critique in the age of "post.''

Gilbert begins his piece with an almost blanket dismissal of previous work in the area. My own book The Wacousta Syndrome is among the foremost objects of his scorn. Before you jump to the conclusion from this that I am "picking on'' Gilbert out of spite, let me say that his treatment of me is pertinent, but not for the reasons one might suppose. In lumping me as one of those critics who has made the mistake of viewing Canada through a veil of American values, and devaluing it in conseque nce, Gilbert makes it clear that he hasn't actually bothered to read the text he is criticizing. If he had, he would soon have realized that I'm on his side of the fence on this issue. Not only does my book attack exactly the same error of perspecti ve as he does ("We have measured ourselves against an imported yardstick for far too long,'' I say at one point), but its whole thrust is to show how the supposed stigmata of victimization are so differently valued and deployed in the Canadian fic tional universe that they can't be seen as stigmata at all. Gilbert's misapprehension here stems from the fact that he has derived his information entirely from one particularly malicious review by Frank Davey in which, in revenge for what the autho r presumably perceived as aspersions on his own practice, I am made out to be not only a sloppy scholar but a neurotic self-hater. You'll get an idea of the quality of this source from the passage Gilbert invokes as "proof'' of my benightedness in which, using what we all know to be the favourite trick of a dishonest reviewer, his mentor has strung together a whole series of one and two-word "quotations'' in such a way as to imply something entirely opposite to their original meaning. My qua rrel here isn't with Davey. I didn't respond to him when the review first appeared, and I'm not going to now. (His practice is so blatantly unprofessional that I can't believe any competent scholar would give it a second thought.) My quarrel, rath er, is with an academic environment that conveys to a young scholar (and I infer from his bio that Gilbert is fairly new-minted) that it is all right to hold forth on a text or an oeuvre without bothering to strike up a first-hand acquaintance with it.

I'm not, unfortunately, just talking about what he does to my own work here. The same fast-and-looseness permeates the whole essay. (The fact that this went unrecognized by these otherwise well-informed editors is perhaps further proof of how lit tle importance is placed on, or attention paid to the "meaning'' dimension of culture.) Drawing on a few secondary sources and even fewer primary ones, Gilbert is prepared to make vast generalizations not just about Canadian theatre, which is his own area of expertise, but about Canadian film (of which he appears to know only Lauzon's Un zoo, la nuit), Canadian television (which he appears to know only secondhand from Miller's work), and Canadian culture in general. And this is the sole repr esentative of the "lit'' field that the book has to offer! Not that one would be likely to find a strikingly different modus elsewhere. The whole reason I'm making so much of this, in fact, is not that Gilbert is worse than many of his colleagues -- indeed, his impulse to interrogate Canadian ethnophobia is a rare and a laudable one -- but precisely because he is not. Since the mid-'eighties, Canadian art, literary, and cultural studies have become systematically divorced both from their own disciplinary histories and from the bodies of work they purport to elucidate. The most obvious reason for this is the authority accrued by postmodernism, with its overvaluation of theory and emphasis on undecidability. The general tendency is exa cerbated in the case of Canada, however -- and this is the important point for present purposes -- by a deep-seated parochialism which implies that anything homegrown, and particularly anything pre-post, is not worth bothering about.

It's here, I would say, and not in the realm of popular culture, that transnationalism really takes its worst toll. Where filmmakers at least object to being drowned out by foreign voices, Canadian intellectuals -- and I'm not just talking about lit types -- seem to think that colonization is a badge of distinction. Viewed in perspective, the implications of this are more than a little disturbing. World-class pretensions aside (and the one unmistakable sign of a "postie'' is the claim to transcend sitedness), it is clear that the insistence on Canada's indistinguishability, with its hinted fear that to be distinct is necessarily to be inferior, is far more self-defeating than any amount of talk about differences. The truly regrettab le thing about the post-boom, in fact, is that it provided the means to disguise this deprecating tendency as trendiness. Whatever benefits postmodernism may have afforded the elite strata of Canadian academics (and I'd be the first to admit that at least in the early stages the influx of continental theory provided us with a much-needed shot in the arm), the effect on the ground -- in the classroom -- was the well-nigh erasure of any positive sense of a Canadian self. And the effect of this was to revive with a vengeance the habit decried by S.D. Clark back in the mid- 'seventies of carrying out social research by plugging a few Canadian facts into imported models. Here, I would claim, is the real reason why popular wisdom no longer "sees'' the difference between Canadian and American culture, regardless of empirical evidence. Here also is the reason why it troubles me to note the willingness of general cultural and communications researchers to leave interpretation so entirely to the specialists. The broader their purview, the more up-to-date their theoretical underpinnings, the more ambitious their projects (focused research is by definition less prone to errors of generalization), the more likely it is that the speci alists will be just as ignorant of the thing-in-itself as those who don't even pretend to care about substance.

This brings me back to the subject at hand. Lest the foregoing may seem to qualify my verdict on this book, I would have to say that this isn't actually the case. Quite apart from the felicities listed in my preamble, the ultimately most valuable thing about this collection for me is the way it models prevailing conditions (the tendency and the diverseness, the strengths and the weaknesses) in the field from which it emerges. The dissonance of which I spoke earlier may, in fact, be the be st thing it has to offer. By bringing together not only a variety of topics but a variety of visions, the editors have made it more difficult for at least the engaged reader to rest with any particular partial view. Focused studies like Miller's and MacAloon's point up what's wrong with cavalier claims about the non-existence of Canadianness as a meaningful category. Broad treatments like Feldthusen's, Ostry's, Adam's, and even Rutherford's, on the other hand, provide a context within which the focused studies have to be read. Presiding over the whole, meanwhile, Frank Manning does an exemplary job of seeing what his authors don't see, articulating what they don't say, and bringing coherence to a diverse collocation of variably erudite tidbits which otherwise, in Thelma McCormack's words, wouldn't "add up.'' As an entry to Canadian culture, Manning's introduction alone is worth the price of this book.

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