A Border Within: National Identity, Cultural Plurality and Wilderness

Ian Angus

Canada, as Kieran Keohane (1997, p. 8) argues, does not exist: "The unity of what is common to us, let's call it `Canada,' is an allusive / illusive ideal that is always denied by its being contested and mediated through particular experiences." In short, "Canada [only] exists as symptoms of the real thing which doesn't exist" (p. 17). He nevertheless suggests that there is a way in which we might come to know Canada through the recognition of the "particularity of the symptoms of its lack," which is to say the way in which Canada emerges through the practices that work to cover over the anxious fact of our non-existence. The problem, as Keohane points out, is whether we opt for some form of hegemonic project that looks to stabilize a positive conception of the social (Reform populism, left nationalism, Quebec separatism, etc.), or whether we seek to preserve the "dynamism of radical indeterminability" that subverts such efforts.

At the beginning of his book on (Anglo)-Canadian identity, Ian Angus describes what he calls a hegemonic formation, extending in time from 1945 to 1989. In this era, "the goal of capitalist expansion and stabilization was accepted throughout society and radical alternatives were associated with the external enemy of communism," and it was during this time when "the social actor that came to the fore was the nation-state, which became the leader of the historic bloc" (p. 23). Also emerging during this period was what Angus refers to as "English Canadian left-nationalism." Defined as a "discourse whose main political intervention was oriented around the term `identity' " (p. 3), this movement sought, in the context of a displaced economy, to render a sense of Canada and Canadian identity by encouraging the state to intervene with a set of protective measures, aimed for the most part at the stimulation and preservation of Canadian culture in the face of external threats (primarily from the United States).

To the extent that this "discourse" of identity was successful, particularly in moving the machinery of the state, it is now, according to Angus, under threat yet again from external forces -- forces which appear to be leading to the withering away of the state altogether. The stability wrought by the hegemonic formation that emerged after the Second World War is increasingly undermined by international trade regimes as well as what might be described as the diasporic movement of both capital and cultures across the length and breadth of the globe. The issue of identity, once firmly tethered to the ship of state, appears to be at risk of being set adrift. In this context, Angus attempts to undertake a restorative, if not nostalgic, recovery of an English-Canadian identity through a rescuing critique that would seek to both overcome the conservative inhibitions of the English-Canadian philosophical tradition and re-situate the question of (Anglo)-Canadian identity in the post-NAFTA global village.

The problem with our tradition, as Angus rightly argues, is that it is backward-looking, and in the end not even Canadian. On the one hand, George Grant's critique of modernity "travelled the path of Western philosophy in reverse" (p. 98), which led him to situate his ethical stance entirely outside of modernity itself, in what Angus describes as a "Platonic-Christian concept of justice" (p. 99). Likewise, Harold Innis' arrival at orality as salvation is also rooted in an anti-modern conception of European humanism, and is thus "replete with conservative political implications" (p. 70). Both Innis and Grant "sought the basis for their critique of industrial-technological society in a concept of moral reason that was outside, and impervious to, the phenomenon they criticized" (p. 103). For Angus, the difficulty is that the tradition represented by these two cannot be developed in an immanent manner: "This position makes it impossible to pose the issue of what technology or mode of communication might be used by a new form of society promoted by their critique" (p. 103). It is not sufficient to imagine a way out of modernity that would simply seek to annihilate it. Rather, as Angus argues, one must rescue the shards of the English-Canadian tradition and re-fashion them into a critique that would move beyond modernity, that is, forward rather than back.

If Angus provides us with an astute reading of the aporias and contradictions of one English-Canadian tradition, it is not clear whether he offers us a way out. The way he hopes this will be accomplished, in its initial phase at least, is (via Grant) through the recognition of "one's own" -- the "recognition of the particular" which is "most characteristic of Canadian thought" (p. 74). Our exit visa from Europe and the ties that bind is the confrontation with our place here in the new world, in particular, our confrontation with the wilderness. This place, however, is itself paradoxically characterized by Angus as homelessness. Thus, the degree zero of English Canada is "an unlimited, radical sense of incompleteness" (p. 121), an awareness of a lack of origin produced by the experience of wilderness. Interestingly, this is almost symmetrical with Keohane's idea of "radical indeterminability." However, the question is whether this incompleteness can be derived from the particular experience of Canadians, or whether it is constitutive as such for subjective (and national?) experience in general. Keohane, for instance, argues that the United States, like Canada, seeks to overcome its indeterminacy by acting out against others, albeit in the international military arena rather than through the production of resentment. In that sense, the radical incompleteness described by Angus is the starting point for all forms of national identity, since they are all radically indeterminate at the outset.

Philosophy, as Angus suggests, "begins with homelessness," since to philosophize is to differentiate from some mythological whole, and from nature. Here is where it is difficult to discern what is "one's own." Angus wishes to re-assert the particularism of the Canadian experience, and thus remain faithful to Anglo-Canadian cultural nationalism, which is said to be rooted in our confrontation with nature. However, as Angus himself points out, to philosophize is to draw a line between nature and culture, and if "one's own" is a cultural artefact, the connection with "nature" except as some artificial, cultural, representation, becomes tenuous.

The problem, as Angus notes, is that myth seems like an untenable direction, given the sorts of ethnic nationalism it has produced. He implies that a civilization -- a Canadian civilization -- would not resort to ethnic cleansing because it is different, and better. This is because we have a tradition of tolerance based on a notion of collective rights which is in turn based on a confrontation with nature that demands co-operation. "Maintaining a border in the wilderness" sounds, however, more like defensive expansionism, or a garrison mentality, than some kind of new beginning. It sounds more like the rediscovery (or the eternal return) of that old feeling of misery: "Where it [English Canada] was concerned to preserve its own," writes Angus, "it must now prepare for its own abjection. This explains the continuity with the present project, allied to new social movements, with the surpassed project of left-nationalism. They meet at the border" (p. 111). Indeed they do.

If we are to accept our own "abjection," this is merely to further concretize an already existing sense of inferiority, and to further the production of what Michael Dorland (1988) called Canadian ressentiment. This, of course, is not Angus' goal. Rather, the "love of one's own" (one's abjection?) implies a respect for one's own culture that would be extended to a respect for, and preservation of, another's. We have seen, however, the kind of violence that can occur in the name of a "collective identity [turned] into a project capable of rational justification" (p. 161). In part, it might be argued that the very colonization we seek to distinguish ourselves from is the product of this kind of thinking, and to that extent Angus betrays his own critique of technology and its accompanying "rational justification." Indeed, even if we were to install some kind of "I'm OK, You're OK" social tolerance, it is not clear how we would procedurally resolve issues of ethical incommensurability. We can see this in the problem of issues such as choice versus right to life, where institutional structures, not to mention ideologies, are at an impasse. What would we do with a culture whose "love of one's own" includes clitorectomy? Love of one's own often takes institutional form, leading to competing claims regarding the configuration of both public and private life, such as we are currently experiencing in what Angus calls the "multinational state" of Canada.

In the midst of all of this, it is not clear where we would secure some positive form of Canadian identity. To say that we are today embattled by globalization and international trade regimes is to say nothing new. We have always been embattled by international trade, whether organized in Europe or in the United States. If anything, Canada is uniquely privileged to have been constructed under conditions which other countries may now be experiencing for the first time. We have always, as Maurice Charland (1988) has suggested, been an "absent nation." The question that remains is the extent to which it is necessary (or we are compelled) to persistently attempt to fill this absence with some sort of positive content. If Keohane's contention is correct, it is precisely the emptiness at the core of Canada that is constitutive of its identity. Is this bad? Only if we constantly and compulsively reiterate the claim to fill that gap, while ignoring the production of Canadian identity that is already occurring in its absence. We do not need another hegemonic formation, particularly not an Anglo-Canadian one. Despite Angus' claims to the contrary, his argument leads in that direction, to "assert our own" in order to "negotiate with [other] groups over the future of the country" (p. 113). Here lurks the kind of identitarian (and nationalist) politics which Angus seeks to avoid.

Also lurking underneath is the persistent refusal to recognize the extent to which Canada has developed a culture, in the absence of any specific point of origin. It has been typical of the formation he describes, as it is for Angus, to consistently downplay the achievements of national cultural policy by consigning those gains to the dustbin of ersatz commercial culture. For instance, he states that "the project of self knowledge has been cut off from any national vision addressing issues of economic dependency by being narrowed to a conception of culture as dealing solely with the federal regulation of scholarly, artistic, or media expressions separately from their relation to popular practices" (p. 40), which as its consequence has separated the issue of cultural autonomy from questions of economic dependency. This ignores, however, the degree to which cultural prestige has in fact been mobilized as a means of overcoming dependency through the encouragement of the "cultural industries" Angus dismisses as inauthentic expressions of Canadian identity. As I have argued elsewhere (Dowler, 1997), this policy has been successful to the extent that the issue of dependency is addressed through the recognition and support of cultural production as both a form of expression and an economic enterprise at the same time. This has been the case, at least for the federal government, since cultural programs were consolidated within the Department of Communications in the late 1970s.

This proximity to the economic is, however, clearly problematic both for Angus and his Anglo-nationalist predecessors, as much as it was for Grant and Innis before them. Once again we can detect the resonances of the Massey Commission and the obsession with Canadian particularism, defined as a culture that would be non-commercial, authentic, and therefore not American. In this view, there is no room for "popular practices," except to the extent that they conform to some idealized conception of genuine expression free from the taint of capital. But what if the "national popular will" that Angus seeks refused to identify itself with left-nationalist desire? What if this elusive "national popular" is deeply imbricated in modes of cultural production that are ostensibly "American" in character? Perhaps the story is unfolding in a way that the nationalists failed to predict, that culture, rather than compensating for a displaced economy, would be central to its reconstruction. Here we have to be aware of another kind of xenophobia that undermines the sorts of multicultural solidarity that Angus imagines for us.

Despite assertions to the contrary, Angus overlooks the possible evidence of Canadian identity as it is being forged in popular practices. To some extent this failure is a holdover from the containment exercises that have been characteristic of much (Anglo)-Canadian cultural discourse. "One's own" is right at the doorstep (or on "Me TV") awaiting recognition, although it may not take the form one might have hoped for. It may be entangled in the interpenetration of practices and dispositions that are characteristic not only of popular culture, but of all forms of cultural practice. For instance, try to imagine the Group of Seven -- or Charles Pachter (whose painting graces the cover of Angus' book), for that matter -- without European and American modernism. If they are quintessentially Canadian, especially in terms of their confrontation with wilderness, they are at the same time entwined in the international circulation of aesthetic dispositions and practices. That does not, however, detract from their distinctiveness.

As Priscilla Walton & Michael Dorland (1996) have pointed out, deviance from the program of "English Canadian left-nationalism" is tantamount to treason. "The state or the United States" is in this sense to define the criminal limits of popular action in Canada, since this form of the Canadian imaginary cannot tolerate any kind of activity that might occur somewhere in between these two places. In other words, a certain kind of identity is privileged, at the expense of the popular itself which may, surprisingly, contain those very indicators of identity which are being sought. It is not clear, under these conditions, the degree to which philosophy "at the border" can help us here, nor the degree to which it prevents us from finding the very thing we seek.


Charland, Maurice. (1986). Technological nationalism. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 10(1-2), 196-220.

Dorland, Michael. (1988). A thoroughly hidden country: Ressentiment, Canadian nationalism, Canadian culture. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 12(1-2), 130-164.

Dowler, Kevin. (1997). The cultural industries policy apparatus. In Michael Dorland (Ed.), The cultural industries in Canada (pp. 328-346). Toronto: Lorimer.

Keohane, Kieran. (1997). Symptoms of Canada: An essay on the Canadian identity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Walton, Priscilla, & Dorland, Michael. (1996). Untangling Karla's web: Post-national arguments, cross-border crimes, and the investigation of Canadian culture. American Review of Canadian Studies, 26(1), 31-48.

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