A Report on the Afterlife of Culture:
AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN BEATTIE, April 2008
Steven Beattie: In the opening essay in A Report on the Afterlife of Culture, you draw a connection between the killing of a Japanese tourist and his guide in Guatemala and José Saramago’s novel Baltasar and Blimunda to illustrate how the transition from a spiritual culture to a technological, consumerist culture occurs, and what effect this transition has on the broader society. Does this transition serve as the tipping point beyond which we are necessarily in the “afterlife of culture”?
Stephen Henighan: Not necessarily. The presence of technology –factories, automobiles, trains– of earlier eras in Europe or North America didn’t immediately dispatch the written cultures which grow out of a spiritual vision. Even in the 20th century literature supplied the forms and governing assumptions behind much radio programming. I suppose this begins to change with television, but it’s only when digital culture becomes dominant in the 21st century that we begin to lose the ability to perceive experience in terms of historical chronology and traditional cultural forms become empty vessels, even though people still use them – the conditions I identify as defining the “afterlife of culture.” The chronology works differently for the Maya, of course, because they were colonized in the 16th century and their Spanish colonizers burned their written literature, leading them to become illiterate in their own languages. I evoked the Maya as an example of people whose belief systems have been shattered. This is in the process of happening to the rest of us now, even though we’ve done it to ourselves, with our own technology.
SB: In your essay “The Reshaping of the Canadian Novel” from When Words Deny the World, you quip that you “had failed to realize that in the climate of the 1990s, ‘reactionary’ had become a compliment.” But, given the fact that it’s impossible to the genie of technology back in the bottle, is the yearning for a return to a more traditional (pre-afterlife) version of culture not by definition reactionary?
SH: I made that comment after I called Carol Shields a reactionary and her publisher slapped the quote onto the cover of the paperback edition. It’s possible that the person choosing quotes for Random House didn’t know what the word meant and assumed it was laudatory. I think your question is asking about a different kind of reactionary posture – that of someone who longs for cultural forms which have been relegated to the past. It may be true that in thirty years’ time a writer of novels will be a throwback, rather like someone who makes stained glass windows and has survived into an era in which people have stopped building cathedrals. At the same time, a concept central to my definition of the afterlife of culture is that, even when the conditions which created the cultural form have evaporated, the form itself goes marching on. Part of what facilitates this is the increasing fragmentation of society. This ensures that there will probably always be novel readers, just as there will always be people interested in wood carving or knitting. But they’ll be just one sect among many. The more difficult question is whether the novel is still “the novel” after it’s been stripped of its essential capacity to gobble up and define all of society.
SB: You point to Michel Houellebecq as a French author whose narrative work “has consumed technology.” Japan has Haruki Murakami; England has David Mitchell and, recently, Steven Hall; why has Canada not been able to breach this barrier outside of the genre fiction of William Gibson or Cory Doctorow?
SH: People have been asking this question since at least the 1970s, when the neighbours had Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barth and we had Robertson Davies and Margaret Laurence. The answer goes back to the fact that Canada was never an imperial power like Britain or Japan, nor did it have an 18th century revolution like the United States or France. Our writing is post-colonial in its need to make sense of our history and enshrine our myths. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s more troubling is when we act like flat-out colonials, pandering to the international market by suppressing our history to create no-name historical romances, or erasing the details of our present. The kind of writing you mention depends on a confident, clear-eyed, unashamed grasp of the quirks of one’s own environment, if only as a taking-off point and a source for off-beat insights. Many Canadian writers –and, sadly, many more now than thirty or forty years ago– are too embarrassed by their own marginalized reality to lend it the attention it warrants. Such writers –we all know them– long to be somebody else. The writing reflects that. Even so, some of Douglas Coupland’s work might fit into the Mitchell-Murakami-Houellebecq category. But it’s telling, I think, that Coupland gets reviewed more seriously outside Canada than he does at home.
SB: If the afterlife of culture involves the marginalization of artists –in particular, writers– is this necessarily a problem? Isn’t being on the margins of society and critiquing it what writers have always done? Could the argument be made that it’s impossible for artists to function usefully anywhere other than on the margins?
SH: Yes, yes! God help the writer who becomes a corporate courtier and grows too cautious to speak or invent freely! But I see the marginalization of the writer under the afterlife of culture as being qualitatively different from that of bohemian cultures of the past such as Paris in the 1920s, Bloomsbury in the 1930s and 1940s, or Greenwich Village between the 1940s and the 1960s. Those formations had an internal, literary coherence and trafficked in a high-art form of the written culture that was the stuff of daily cultural and social debate. This gave them influence on the centre from an outpost on the margins. The Refus global manifesto in Quebec in 1948 is a good Canadian example of the same phenomenon, even though many of the participants were visual artists. It’s different today because literacy itself has lost its centrality and the counter-cultural pretensions of a “marginalized” bohemianism has been gutted by the voracity of a globalized capitalism that turns even the most wild rebellions into one more drab commodity. Just as Greenwich Village itself has disappeared from the geography of New York in recent years as a result of rampant property speculation, so has the cultural position represented by that sort of self-selecting marginalization.
SB: In A Report on the Afterlife of Culture, you write: “The transition from a sacred world defined by the word to a technological world defined by the image promotes the primacy of urban life.” Is one of CanLit’s primary problems not a refusal to grapple with exactly this modern urban experience?
SH: Absolutely. It’s precisely that period of civilization –which I’d say we’re now approaching the end of– when you’re living in the urban world but still have access to literary languages elaborated in a sacred, ritualized context which gives you great potential for literature, offering a dense variety of experience and the opportunity to rev up literary language in response to the beat of the city, to collisions between people from different cultures who’ve flocked together in close proximity and so on. At the same time, I think it’s important to avoid falling into the common trap of Canadian cultural commentators of contrasting the “cool, multicultural downtown” to the “white, reactionary hinterland.” We can’t write urban novels for the same reason that we have difficulty writing any kind of novel about our present, namely a neo-colonial shame of recognizing and playing imaginatively with the details of Canadian social and cultural realities. That’s a Canadian problem, not a specifically urban or rural one. The urban versus rural duality so beloved of journalists denigrates our history and distorts the problems of our present.
SB: You point out that the volume of literature in translation is distressingly thin in Canada. Given that we live in an officially bilingual country and some of the best Canadian writers working today (Gaétan Soucy, Élise Turcotte, Christianne Frenette, Nicholas Dickner) are Francophone writers writing in French, why is this resistance to works in translation so endemic in this country?
SH: As the larger partner in this bilingual country, English-speaking Canadians have the responsibility to make the smaller partner feel secure. In spite of the adoption of official bilingualism, we’ve never made the move to a more open mentality. And our history is bad, bad, bad. Remember that from 1913 to 1928 it was illegal to teach in French in Ontario public schools. Well-off English-speaking parents leapt on French immersion in the 1980s as a way of segregating the public school system between rich and poor and achieving private schooling without having to pay for it; few people have shown much interest in whether French immersion actually teaches kids French (which in most cases it doesn’t). The snob appeal was always more important than whether little Tara or Tyler would be able to converse with a logger in Moncton or Chicoutimi. When someone speaks French on television, the CBC dubs their voice as though they were speaking Klingon. If we had a “bilingual” mentality, the CBC would let us hear our Francophone compatriots’ voices, providing subtitles if necessary. The shocking editing-out of Claude Dubois, one of Canada’s greatest singers, from the English broadcast of the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame Gala in March 2008 is typical of this: the CBC execs were terrified that the Anglo bourgeoisie would channel-surf over to CNN at the sound of a song in French. The hard –very hard– work that needed to be done to challenge and break down the ingrained francophobia of the old-stock Anglo Canadian bourgeoisie has never been completed and now many of those insular attitudes have been transmitted to people of more recent immigrant backgrounds who have assimilated into English-speaking Canadian culture. At the same time, the peculiar form taken by Canadian nationalism has resulted in a situation where, unlike both Great Britain and the United States, we have no national institution which funds incoming translations from other countries. The result is that we fund Canadian translations from French, then bury them, and we close ourselves off from the rest of the world, leaving it up to the Brits and the Yanks to decide what gets translated into English. The combination is stultifying.
SB: What is the most pressing challenge facing Canadian literature and Canadian writers and critics in the afterlife of culture?
SH: Probably the survival of literary education. Even students whose interests lie in the humanities often graduate from high school these days without having read a book. There’s more and more pressure to divert library budgets into buying computers which will be obsolete three years after their purchase, accompanied by a strengthening credo that reading is elitist and teaching literature is demeaning to kids whose parents aren’t English-speaking or whose primary interests lie elsewhere, or that classroom discussion of novels, poems and stories risks calling into question various vested belief systems, from fundamentalist Protestantism to market capitalism to Islamic dogmatism, which, of course, is part of what literature does best and one of the reasons to immerse yourself in books. There’s a confluence of interests between elements of both the right and the left which promote these suffocating views. Rather than reinforcing kids’ mouse-click attention-spans, schools should be working to instill an ability to engage in extended concentration. Without this, kids will be trapped in an eternal present, lacking the ability to put their experience in context or make effective judgements. Incidentally, they won’t vote or read either. Then, to return to the image of the Maya with which A Report on the Afterlife of Culture opens, we will be living in a culture whose literary experience is no longer accessible to its citizens.