Local Authority (1993)
Presented March 1993 at the Rivoli, Toronto, as part of Culture Lab 2, organized by Brian Boigon. Unpublished.
Now that I have prepared your attention by the arrogant assumption of my title, I want to return to its more humble origins. Admittedly, I chose the title with an ear towards provocation, but more than the general name of a municipal regulating body, I thought “local authority” in its almost archaic sense: as an individual who acts as the unofficial archivist and oral historian of a place. If these referents of the phrase have meaning by what gives “local authority” sense as a phrase, the individual concepts “local” and “authority” cannot now be thought together except as a contradiction, or at least as a contested site. Through the regulating play of its antagonism, this impossibility perhaps actually defines community, or at least does so here. My title, then, should read “Toronto: the Impossible Community.” A local issue, for which I apologize to my fellow panelists: I am taking up the question of authority as it asserts itself in and defines this community. This is not so much a question of defining what used to be called the role of the intellectual as asking how the local authorizes, that is, justifies and legitimates, itself.
We need first, however, to make an excursion through the categories of nation and community in order to understand how these historical and social constructs pre-inscribe and limit our self-definition as local. (By local, of course, I am referring to us as both Canadian and of the Toronto art community.)
The conflicts of emerging nationalities following the breakdown of empire in Eastern Europe reflect on the macro scale the crises we witness on the micro level of theory and community debates. In Canada, though not in Québec (which is still captured by the language of “people” and “nation”), our uncertain status as a nation—both for ourselves and others: our famous identity problem—lends us a practical advantage in defining the issues of history, authority and community. The unequal rate of development of national histories—which may be only the unequal attention paid to different histories—has foreclosed a history for us. A decade ago, in the article “Colony, Commodity and Copyright,” I wrote: “The conditions of existence of contemporary Canadian art are complex. Not the least is the fact of having passed from pre-modernism to post-modernism without a history of modernism.” Now this statement has been contested by the simple fact of pointing to Canadian painters who could be called modernist; but this misses the historical problem completely since it fails to recognize the foundational abyss that confronts us trying to begin a history. Yet, my statement suggests the unconscious presence of a tradition, in that it has an uncanny analogy to what was for me then unknown, not having read, Northrop Frye’s homologous statement: “So in a way it has been an advantage for Canadian literature to have gone from a pre-national into a post-national phase without ever having been a nation.” The unconscious, however, is no criterion for the transmission of tradition.
The structural analogies here—pre-modern/pre-national, post-modern/post-national, and modern/nation—reveal what we already know: that the origins of nations are inextricably tied up with the passage to modernity in a particular society and to the foundation of its literary history. (I say literary rather than art history because it is a matter of the identity of language, people and nation; but my concern here is, of course, art history.) Seeming to have bypassed the category modern occludes us as Canadians from the possibility of founding a history, which puts us in a particular predicament in relation to ourselves and at a competitive disadvantage in relation to others. For the fact is that we do not have a history and the conditions for its possibility no longer exist without the conditions of modernism.
In the nineteenth century, philology went hand in hand with politics in the movements that created new nation states. Philologists strove to create their national literary histories and founding figures of poetry produced their vernacular classics. English Canada’s vernacular originated in the imperial centre of London and so could not alone define a nation for its inhabitants nor institute a history. More problematic is any myth of origin that compels belief for us. One prominent Canadian economic historian has deflated the myths of national origin by simply acknowledging that through two legislative acts in 1840 and 1867 Canada was created as a “credit instrument to enhance the price system in the mobilization of capital.” If nations are acts of foundational fictions, then Canada is no best-seller. If origins of communities are more imaginary than actual, and must be maintained so, our acts of identification with foundational fictions and figures are limited. Given the dynamics that create community, many of us might prefer to identify with two other events and figures of 1867—the publication of Marx’s Das Kapital and the death of Baudelaire—than with the acts of Confederation of Canada and its founding fathers.
Our identifications with myths of origin, in fact, are negative: our history is one of failure to respond to others’ founding gestures, as in the settlement of Upper Canada or Ontario, our place here, by the United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. Thus, Dennis Duffy wrote in 1982: “In the Loyalist myth, I am seeking to call forth a symbolic pattern of explanation and narration laid upon the stark facts of defeat, exile, endurance, and final mastery of a new land. Out of a communal trauma of defeat, exile, and beginning again comes a larger patterning.” These patterns are given different names as the explanation of our literature and culture in Canadian’s recoil from nature: from Northrop Frye’s “garrison mentality” to Margaret Atwood’s thematic of survival and victimization and Gaile McGregor’s “Wacousta Syndrome.” These names represent twenty years of theorizing Frye’s question of Canadian identity: not “Who am I?” but “Where is here?” The first period can be identified between, say, Frye’s “Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada” of 1965 and Atwood’s handbook Survival and poet Dennis Lee’s lecture “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in a Colonial Space,” both of 1972. In this period Canadian identity is framed between the coming to cultural consciousness as a nation through its centennial and exposure to the world during Expo 67 and the knowledge of continental complicity in the Vietnam War. The themes articulated by Frye of Canadian’s recoil from nature become in Atwood’s metaphor of survival an allegory of the collective victimization of colonial subjection with America the new colonial master.
As this knowledge of colonial subservience extended through the 1970s, the influence of Harold Innis’s writings on mercantilism grew in its explanatory import. My 1983 essay, “Colony, Commodity and Copyright,” with its reliance on Innis’s dichotomy of imperial metropole and colonial hinterland, paid structural homage when I wrote: “Our continuing colonial dependency in the transition from mercantilism to corporate branch plant management is registered in some way in every level of culture as a lack of validity given to local production. This repeats in both institutions and individuals, and the relation of individual to institution, the structure of margin to centre of a hinterland to imperial metropole.” This reliance on Innis announces a second period of analysis in a movement from writing about patterns to recognizing structures dominating and determining Canadian culture as a whole. Gaile McGregor’s Wacousta Syndrome, published in 1985, should be seen as participating in this transformation of literary observations into a structural law that, as she says, “pervades and dominates not just Canadian literature but Canadian culture as a whole.”
Where a lack exists in the origin, we tend compulsively to repeat it over time: thus, the problem of while obviously history transpires—things take place—no History (or histories) are set in place. We seem as writers, rather, to compete for the theory of a lack for which “colony” becomes the generalized name. You will say that the lack of a foundational fiction has only become one more founding fiction; and you are right. And yet we cannot simply fill that lack and thereby find a positive foundation. As much as we may lament this lack of a history or find it problematic, the conditions never will exist for its writing—if by writing or instituting a history, we think in terms of foundations and origins. Of course, in anti-foundational times, who could? And yet, the problem of this history persists compounded by the facts that as Canadians we have no master narratives to contest, no canon to overturn or access. How do we begin a history under these conditions, or, rather, since the very idea of a beginning might still be questioned as modernist, by what means does a history appear?
How do we proceed under these conditions to go forward toward a history? To avoid re-capture by this lack, we will have to think in performative—even prescriptive—rather than foundational or institutional terms. A more immediate consequence for us, however, is that if nation cannot exist as an origin of writing history, then we have to abandon the idea of a Canadian art history. Anyway, as Canadians we have never been able to adhere with much conviction to the notion of nationalism, which follows the logic of an essence originating a people and state. The inauguration of another state at the same moment as Canada’s formation (I refer to Germany in 1870) in particular in its impossible appropriation of essence suggests the path of history we cannot appropriate for ourselves. Not for us, as Canadian writers, then, the inaugural gesture of founding a history, “to represent in the history of literary works, the idea of national individuality on its way to itself,” as Hans Robert Jauss declared the ambition of nineteenth century philologists. Neither nation nor concomitant myth of origin with their mutual subject “the people,” can legitimate a history for us.
The retreat from nation to community does not automatically allow the local to resolve larger historical contradictions by becoming a new site of self-limiting foundational fictions. Postmodernism renewed discussion on locality, but this renewal ironically was accompanied in art by a return to national histories (the phenomenon of neo-expressionism, transavantguardia, etc.)—which were no more perhaps than strategic manoeuverings in the marketplace. We too participated in Toronto in what I at the time labelled a mimetic rivalry reproducing debates elsewhere and seeking recognition for the same here. It is no coincidence that mimetic rivalry operates within the dynamics of the structure metropole-hinterland for reasons I cannot develop at this moment nor, I should add, from which I am exempt.
I re-open this old wound—for those of you who may recall my pronouncements from this platform nine years ago—perhaps only to mark this passage of time in which the Toronto art community has remained local but no community. Before Toronto can become recognized as a locality for itself and others, it must renew for itself, after this hiatus, the question of community.
At the same time that we cannot use “nation” to validate our history, seeking legitimation in a foundation myth of origin, so too we cannot appropriate for ourselves the discourse of its opposite: the legitimation of community as an idea to be realized in the future. My previous presentation here was marked by this other still modernist project, by the language, so to speak, of “what is to be done?”, a language that can only be a narrative with its well-known inclusions and exclusions. For good or bad, “Axes of Difference,” the name of that presentation, is now one of the narratives of Toronto art.
It is one of the narratives of Toronto art, as divisive as its effects might have been. Community is a matter of these affiliations and contestations, however; this is precisely why we have been drawn here from our various natal places. Affiliation and contestation are acted out through these narratives. When I suggested earlier Toronto as an impossible community, it was exactly because it cannot authorize itself as a community. It cannot authorize itself, not because it has no authority or can recognize no authority—both are true—but because it has lost the will to create its own public narratives. As community can no longer be made of one narrative—and, therefore, no one set of inclusions and exclusions (therefore, no one canon)—it must be composed of narratives that are exposed to each other exactly through this contestation or affiliation. In fact, there can be no authority without the contesting of narratives.
There is the matter, however, from where these narratives start or spring. If “community” was to be the subject of my talk, it only could be announced by a ground that had to be prepared by abandonment, which is all I can do in the time allotted to me. Problems starting writing or lamenting lack are two themes—favourites of mine though they have been—that must be given up. In getting from there to here, from the past to the present, through starting a history that is in perpetual arrears (which, in effect, means never having a history justifying the present), certain concepts have to be given up, such as the cluster: foundation, origin, modernism, and nation as constitutive of history. Arriving at the local and its own histories, I feel, is the yet still to be done—and it will not be accomplished by the language of the local of ten years ago, but by the renewal of the question of community for ourselves.
A thinker of community, Jean-Luc Nancy, has written of community as the singular exposure and expropriation of self to an outside and others in the very intimacy of an inside proper to existence. Exposure of a community to itself is sometimes no more than these exposures of selves that author a narrative and nominate a chain of names or events. It’s the risk of exposure I’ve always taken in my commitment to here.
So speaks a local authority.