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    “The Frontiers of our Dreams are no Longer the Same” Quebec Nationalism from an Anglophone Perspective  

    Part One (The recent victory of the Parti Québecois in Québec made me decide to publish this piece which originally appeared in Boundaries of Identity, edited by William Dodge and published by Malcolm Lester)

    *Title is from (From Refus Global  — quoted by Hubert Aquin in his essay entitled, Literature and Alienation)

    It was an overcast day in 1977 when the great writer and Quebec nationalist, Hubert Aquin, committed suicide. I felt the pain of Aquin's death very deeply having followed his career and his writing for many years. While there was a profoundly personal side to Aquin's death, it was also a metaphoric and symbolic gesture. As he once said: “I am the broken symbol of revolution in Quebec, a reflection of its chaos and its suicidal tendencies.”1

    On the 19th of October, 1976, a few weeks before the Parti Québecois election victory, Andrée Yanacopoulo, Aquin's wife, wrote him a letter in which she implored him to change his mind about suicide.

    "In Quebec we don't live a normal life like people do elsewhere. In more ‘stable’ countries like France, England, or the United States each individual can, in an untroubled way, feel at home… but not here, not in Quebec. For many Québecois you represent the ideals of independence, the invincibility of a nationalist spirit. This only increases the meaning of your work as a writer. Your writing is, at one and the same time, authentically Québecois and universal. It is an act of escapism to commit suicide. It is an admission of failure. You have a responsibility to the Quebec community. If you commit suicide you will be killing a little bit of Quebec. You will be cutting of its future." 2

    She went on to say that his suicide would reenforce defeatist attitudes in Quebec which he himself had openly critiqued. She did not want to bring up their son in a country which wasn't capable of instilling national pride in its citizens. She equated his projected suicide (about which they had argued for many years) with the destruction of a collective identity still in formation.

    There is an attractive romanticism to Yanacopoulo's equation of Aquin and Quebec. It is also a potentially dangerous juxtaposition, for while it might be desirable to conceive of revolution through the eyes of one individual, it is a rather different thing to transform a community of six million people. At the level of myth, however, transformations can be imagined, even thought of as real, without having a direct impact on daily life.

    Aquin wanted a total ‘national revolution’. He wanted to rebuild Quebec society from the bottom up. He wanted to start anew and this led him to analyse both the strengths and weaknesses of his own culture. He saw himself as a representative of the collective will of his people with all of the contradictions which that entails. This is an attractive formulation, a somewhat religious one in fact. It may explain the dark paradox of Aquin's suicide. He offered himself to the Quebec people as myth and this is inevitably the site of a death. No one individual can ever be the nation, just as the nation can never be understood or experienced through one person, although we have witnessed many efforts to create and sustain the possibility of that myth (from Lenin and Stalin through to Mao, Thatcher, Reagan, and so forth). In death all of these ambiguities are frozen. In life they undergo neverending change which alters their mythic status, perhaps fundamentally.


    1 Gordon Sheppard and André Yanacopoulo, Signé Hubert Aquin: Enquête sur le suicide d'un écrivain, (Montréal: Boréal Express, 1985) p.15.

    2 Gordon Sheppard and André Yanacopoulo, Signé Hubert Aquin: Enquête sur le suicide d'un écrivain, (Montréal: Boréal Express, 1985) p. 41.


    Research in Art and Design (Video)

    An interview with Ron Burnett. Apologies for the poor quality of the images. Originally published in CURRENT #2. 


    True Blood: Religion and Despair (2)

    So what is the Truth? Is it possible that True Blood is an extended meditation on the ambiguity of truth in a world where there are fewer and fewer connections between what people say and what they really mean?

    Is this the reason that Sooke Stackhouse can hear people’s thoughts and therefore what they are actually thinking? Doesn’t that put her in an exalted, powerful position? Ironically, the fantasy that people’s thoughts can be heard is the ultimate conceit of the powerless, those who cannot use language and discourse to engage in meaningful conversation and meaningful exchange and those whose actions cannot overcome the challenges they face.

    Or how about the True Death, which is the only way that vampires can die? Is truth possible in a world so layered with untruths that there is no correspondence between reality, human actions and the choices people have to make to survive?

    What happens to reality when the “facts” no longer meaningfully correspond to the experiences people have, when the facts are manufactured to suit the proclivities?

    Truth is that True Blood is about lies and how truth cannot exist in a world where everyone is wearing masks, so that they cannot be seen and where their “true” selves are hidden under layers of magic and false beliefs.

    Perhaps there is no true self. Perhaps, the course of a human life has been set not by the force of human subjectivity but by an imagined power that has already written the scenarios humans enact and complete? At least, that is what True Blood suggests and what many human belief systems suggest govern the outcomes of human actions.

    Who wrote the laws of nature? In True Blood, gods, sorcerers and magicians wrote the laws, which means that human control has been irrevocably lost to forces beyond its control. This is a governing theme in all the shows. Control has been lost. Reality is a sham. As Tara discovers, even death is not absolute. Her transformation into a vampire is one of the most poignant moments in the series, but also one of the most devastating.

    Chance, accidents, capriciousness, these are the enemies of the absolutism that vampires seek in the show. They want order and logic to rule, but discover of course that nature is capricious just as humans are and that their well-laid plans never quite work out. They seek truth, but deceive each other and humans as well. They have a hierarchical political structure that is called The Authority, which governs vampires who do not believe anything they say to each other, thus nullifying the foundations of the authority they seek.

    Suspicion, innuendo and false claims, this is a small part of the inventory of characteristics not only of vampires but also of humans. Over the last two weeks, True Blood has been pushing the boundaries between reality and fantasy even further as the war between vampires who believe in co-existence with humans and those who do not believe in any form of interaction, other than using humans for food, plays itself out. But, this is also a war between life and death, between hope and despair. Will the medieval world win out over rationality and logic?

    Next week, I will explore the show’s premise that we are living in pre-enlightenment times.


    True Blood: Religion and Despair (1)

    When the HBO show, True Blood began its now multi-season run, most of the stories and themes centered on Bill Compton and Sooke Stackhouse and their struggles to survive a world where reality had no clear and rational foundation and where their love for each other was both dangerous and avant-garde. The first few seasons also circled around relationships between the undead and the living using invocation, prayer and magic to explain the inexplicable. The lifeblood of the show was its use of special effects to conjure up ghosts and various other strange deviations of the human form and human reality. This season, the show has morphed into a profound critique of religion and fundamentalism in the United States and elsewhere.

    True Blood is not only examining the rise of religion in American life, it is also exploring the pagan underpinnings of so many of the rituals and beliefs that are the foundation for religious obsessions. Religion is unveiled as an alternate reality suffused with rules and processes that are embedded with superstitions, fears and fantasies, medieval in content, outlook and action.

    The show's characters find themselves in a world that is governed by magic, superstition and enchantment. The medieval Louisiana village that the characters inhabit is peopled by men and women who can transform into dogs, birds and sorcerers. These people can invoke powerful spirits and control the bodies and minds of the innocent while themselves succumbing to the nether worlds that surround their everyday activities. In this village, there are fairies and fairy worlds. There is necromancy, reincarnation, witchcraft and much more. There are magic spells that overwhelm the bodies of those that use them and an endlessly erotic interaction between vampires and humans that is entirely other worldly in its intensity.

    Vampires represent everything that religion promises to humans, from eternal life right through to institutions designed to protect the faithful from themselves and their enemies. But, they are also repugnant figures born from death and always at the edge of extinction. They are the creatures from the borderlands between the living and dead who neither fit into society nor know how to control their desires. When they invoke morality, it is always with ulterior motives. Their bodies are empty but their 'blood' can heal the wounds of humans. As metaphors, vampires represent all the urges humans have to repress and negate. They are weirdly religious and come from the other side, the dark side of humanity. 

    Incantations abound in every show. Words can release a vampire child from his or her maker. The right incantation can bring humans back from the dead, awaken spirit worlds, exorcise devils and define the future. The right statement at an appropriate time can shift and even reality allowing it to be shaped by vision and thought.

    In fact, it is the power of words that best describes the show's exploration of religion. The right words formulated properly confer upon objects not only the power to be subjects but give willpower and subjectivity to nearly everything and everyone. This is simply an extension of the belief that the words of a priest for example, are enough to forgive the transgressions of sinners or that the baptismal act has the power to cross the line between innocence and belief. The language characters use is steeped in religious symbolism and the power of words is strong enough to bring spirits and witches back from the dead. Bodies can be inhabited by the devil or by other forms of black magic. Make an oath, take an oath — and you have done something sacred with consequences that reach backwards in history and forwards to your own survival. 

    True Blood proposes that our culture and our society has returned to pagan times. The enlightenment never happened in 'Bon Temps' — so named because it is a town that has become a repository for the consequences of paganism, a place that exists outside of history. Miracles, both good and bad happen in Bon Temps everyday. Reality is stripped of pretense as the interaction between vampires, witches and magicians becomes a normal part of everyday life. The interface between the supernatural and the real has dissolved in Bon Temps. 

    Part two will appear next week.


    Hiroshima Mon Amour: The Paradoxes of Postmodernity

    Some years ago, I was a Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at McGill University. I taught a class I deeply loved with over six hundred students in it. I loved the class because it was so challenging to engage a new generation of students in watching films, many of which they would never have seen, if they had not joined, Intro to Film. When I showed Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais’s masterpiece, the screening was disrupted by laughing, not only on one occasion, but many times. I wrote an open letter to the students which is reproduced below.   

    I want to start with the film which you saw recently, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. During the film, at moments of great intensity within the story and among the characters, when Alain Resnais is exploring to the fullest, not only the question of desire, but the underlying question of the history of desire, many of you chose, for reasons which I can only speculate on, to laugh. 

    In some senses your laughter bore witness to the fact that we live in a postmodern age, that is, a period of time in which meaning, the ways in which we value and see ourselves and the ways in which we experience our lives on a daily basis, meaning has, in a sense, been lost. Now what does it mean to say that? 

    The loss of meaning implies that all meanings have somehow become relatively equal, one to the other. When our ethical cores are spread out among competing values and we have few tools to distinguish what is right from what is wrong, meaning disappears. 

    Just yesterday I was privy to a conversation between some high school students. During this conversation they argued, at a hypothetical level about how much they wanted to kill Salman Rushdie. These were not Islamic students, they were Anglophone and they were white. What disturbed me about what they said was the manner in which they trivialized a very serious moment in our cultural and political history. The Rushdie affair is not only about censorship, not only about different cultures and the way in which they see each other, but it is also about the values which we should, I would say, must, hold dear. What was at stake in what those students were saying was not so much the content of their conversation, but the fact that they could not see the absence of values, which were at the root of their own rather silly speculations, about how they could go about "winning" the Ayatollah's million dollar price on Rushdie's head. 

    Trivialization. Let me read a very short quote to you from one of the most acute observers of the postmodern scene, even though I consider what Arthur Krokker says here to be overly deterministic, but nevertheless worthy of consideration and thought. 

    “In this dis-membered world everything appears to be equal. Thus the emotions you might feel from watching an episode of your favourite television show, become interchangeable with what you might feel watching the news, watching for example the actual dismemberment of a person, their corpse. But what are you actually watching? How can you, with anything but the most suppressed of emotions, watch the many dead bodies which parade in front of you everyday on television?”

    What is at stake here is the very way in which we see ourselves and if we are simply incapable of registering any feelings anymore, then perhaps Krokker is right. The two people you watched or didn't watch as the case may be in Hiroshima Mon Amour represented both themselves as people and also the historical epochs they were reflecting on. Thus, you will notice that they were both nameless. He represented Hiroshima and she France.

    What is the meaning of Hiroshima to you? Have you ever thought about it? What impact did the images of suffering which you saw have on you? Or were you able to dismiss the images as somehow not relevant because it was not your own relatives whom you saw, or because you have decided that the  Second World War is something from the distant past, not likely to have affected you and not likely to affect you in the present?

    Or perhaps there is such a surfeit of images of pain and suffering on television that you have ceased to worry anymore, after all an image is just that, something you can physically turn off, a piece of plastic, a gathering of pixels. But there was more to the representation of Hiroshima than the man. There was the fundamental question of whether after the disaster and pain which befell those people and their families, and their offspring, the fundamental question of whether desire or love was possible in a world so powerfully haunted by death.

    The same question was being posed for the woman. Could she ever love again in the face of the tragedy which she had lived through?

    This then is also a question of identification. How do you identify with the present and with history? To what extent can you link your own personal history to the current events we experience on an everyday basis? Perhaps there are no norms left that allow us to judge the distinctions between other people’s suffering and our own lives? Perhaps we have reached the point in our history where suffering is merely a footnote to the present?

    In Hiroshima Mon Amour, the main female character talks about her fall from grace, the fact that she loved a German soldier. In the midst of the war, she fell in love with the wrong man. For her, he was not the enemy, which raises serious questions about the nature of enemies, how we define them, and how we explain them to ourselves and to others.

    If, in simple terms the enemy is always outside of us, is an—other, then who are we? Are we good? and is the other always bad? She, in the film crossed the line. She fell in love with an individual who for her had transcended the reality of the war, who was not the war, whom she loved with the youthful exuberance of someone just realizing her desires. The film is precisely about this contradiction, about the impossibility of desire ever being outside of history and of the impossibility of falling in love outside of the historical pressures and currents of the day.

    It is impossible to love without a history, whether that history be personal or public. If your personal history is at the root of your desires and if that history is always related, intertwined with the history of the time, the period in which you are living, then your desires become or should become, a marker for you of the historical period in which you are living. A moment A marker. A sign.

    She loved a German soldier and somehow through that process tried to transcend time and history. But that is not possible. Just as it is not possible for Hiroshima (the man) to possess her somehow outside of time, outside of all of the constraints and difficulties and contradictions of modern-day Japan.

    There is more. How could she have fallen in love with a German soldier in the first place? What point of contact was there? The Germans had occupied France and her village, by the Loire. Nevers. So she fell in love with an occupying soldier, an oppressor, whatever qualities he may have had. What allowed her to transcend the conditions of history, the history of a violent occupation, allowed her to love in the midst of such tremendous decay and destruction? The film poses this as a question which cannot be answered. Because the same question arises in the love affair that she has with the Japanese man in the film.

    There is a process beyond words, a process which cannot be pictured, a process sometimes which cannot even be imagined, a process governed by innocence and by the pleasures of the body which cannot be reduced to history and the film asks, must we, to retain our humanity, accept that part of ourselves without submitting it to examination, submitting it to explanation?

    In her mind love has become associated with pain, with a pain that she must suppress if she is to survive. But pain cannot be suppressed because inevitably it will come out in some form, be that violence, or hatred, or melancholy, or as seems to be the case in the postmodern period a kind of distant nihilism, where the attitude is, who cares, why care, everything is so screwed up anyway, there are no solutions, no way out.

    No way out. That feeling, blockage, despair, a deep sense of loss, is the expression of a pain not dissimilar to the one she expresses in the film. For, if we have convinced ourselves that the act of viewing a dead child on the screen or on television is a mere act of fiction, is fiction, then can we also easily convince ourselves that we are to some degree fictions as well. Identity becomes fictional if all of these painful moments no longer resonate with the power they deserve. It takes storytelling to move beyond or outside of history.

    This then is the beginning of an argument which we could trace out in relation to this class. For we have watched characters who are both real and fictional, and in so doing, especially with Paris, Texas, we have had to face the fictions which might be at the root of absences which seem to govern the postmodern epoch. Absence.

    What if the fundamental organization of meaning at present is dependent on absence? Can you go to Iran? Can you go to the war zones of Afghanistan? Can you inhabit the places and spaces and worlds you desire? Of course you cannot and thus the world you inhabit is filled with absences, which you in turn must fill with your imagination.

    Take the following example. If, on a given night you were to be a part of the news that you watch, if you were to enter into the reality being depicted, what would happen? I leave you to speculate on the answer, but think of the woman in Hiroshima coming to grips with her past by entering into that past through the transformation of her Japanese lover into the German soldier. She addresses him as if he were from the past and in some senses he is. So to fill the absence she has to construct him, and by doing that, paradoxically, she comes to grips with the present.

    Absences. If we were to immerse ourselves in total absence, in total forgetting, what would we become? The only total absence we have some inkling about is death and even with respect to death we cannot imagine absolute absence.

    This is why, in part, she says: "I stayed near his body all that day and then all the next night. The next morning they came to pick him up and they put him in a truck. It was the night Nevers was liberated. The bells of St. Etienne were ringing, ringing.....Little by little he grew cold beneath me. Oh! how long it took him to die! When? I'm not quite sure. I was lying on top of him....yes.....the moment of his death actually escaped me....because even at that very moment, and even afterward, yes, even afterward, I can say that I couldn't feel the slightest difference between this dead body and mine. All I could find between this dead body and mine were obvious similarities, do you understand? he was my first love.........."

    They put him (the German solder) in a truck. So, she too dies and is to a degree brought back to life in the place of greatest death, Hiroshima. But she comes to understand her death through a new love and this is both a contradiction and a paradox. Since if death is absolute then how can she be reborn?

    Alain Resnais, one of France’s greatest filmmakers always plays with these paradoxes in his films. He explores the contemporary desire to ‘manufacture’ reality rather than engage with its challenges. Hiroshima Mon Amour is a difficult film, but it did not deserve to be laughed at.




    Learning and Change in a World of Communications

    I have been an educator, administrator, writer and creative artist for many years. During that time, most of the disciplines with which I have been involved have changed. For better or for worse, the very nature of disciplines (of both an artistic and analytic nature), their function and their role within and outside of institutions has been immeasurably altered. The context for this change is not just the individual nature or history of one or other disciplines or practices. Rather, the social and cultural conditions for the creation and communication of ideas, artifacts, knowledge and information have been transformed by the ubiquitous presence of digital technologies. From my point of view, this transformation has been extremely positive. It has resulted in the formation of new disciplines and new approaches to comprehending the very complex nature of Western Societies. However, we are still a long way from developing a holistic understanding of the implications of these social and cultural shifts.

    From a cultural point of view, the impact of this process of transformation first appeared in the early 20th century when the cinema became a mass medium and accelerated with the advent of radio and then television (although there are many parallels with what happened to literature and photography in the 19th century). This was the first stage in the advent of mass communications systems. Networked technologies have added another layer to the changes and another level of complexity to the ways in which ideas are communicated and discussed, as well as learned. The conventions that have governed communications processes for over fifty years have been turned inside out by the Internet and this has led to some fundamental redefinitions of information, knowledge, space and time.

    Time, for example, does change when the metaphors that we have available for explaining temporal shifts are no longer rooted in conventional notions of seasonal shift and measurement of incremental change. Technology plays a role, but it is not the only player in what has been a dramatic move from an industrial/agrarian society to a mixed environment that is extremely dependent on cultural activity, networks and information.

    The disjunctures at work in our society and the upheavals caused by profound cultural and social change have begun to affect the orientation, direction and substance of many different academic and art-related disciplines. Some of these disciplines have been around for a long time. I would suggest that most disciplines have been under extreme stress for the better part of the 20th century.

    We are very likely in the early stages of a long-term shift in direction and it may take some time yet before that shift is fully understood. One important way of understanding this shift is through the an examination of what has happened to learning in the digital age and the role that technology has played in sustaining and sometimes inhibiting changes in the way learning takes place bothinside and outside institutions.


    Collaborative Design

    As Design moves into the mainstream of contemporary thought, collaboration among designers and many other disciplines, but especially Engineering, will be crucial for the future. It is in Italy that the necessity of collaboration has been understood most profoundly. Most Italian cities have large groups of designers working with architects and engineers on a variety of projects. The DNA of design is built into everything from strategic thinking to urban planning. Amidst the chaos of life in Italy, and the chaos of the Euro crisis, collaborative design may be one of the more obvious answers to thinking about objects, space and organization in new and different ways.


    "Will" A brilliant animation by Eusong Lee

    This is an example of the amazing work coming out of the Character Animation Department at CalArts in Los Angeles. It also reflects and displays how central animation is as a practice and mode of creativity and thought.