October 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
I read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others last week. For some reason, Sontag has always loomed on the fringes of my cultural radar, but I had never read anything by her, other than a few essays or excerpts over the years. In some ways, I found her glib and in others, profound. But I also found her presentist.
At the start of the second chapter, she quotes Gustave Moynier, who in 1899, wrote that “We know what happens every day throughout the whole world,” as he goes onto discuss the news of war and calamity and chaos in the newspapers of the day. Sontag takes issue with this: “[I]t was obviously an exaggeration, in 1899, to say that one knew what happened ‘every day throughout the whole world.'”
We like to think globalization is a new phenomenon, that it was invented in the past 30 years or so and sped up with the advent of the internet and, especially social media, as we began to wear clothes made in China, rather than the US or Canada or Europe. Balderdash. Globalization has been underway since approximately forever. Europeans in the Ancient World had a fascination with the Far East, and trade goods slowly made their way across the Eurasian landmass from China to Italy and Greece. Similarly, the Chinese knew vaguely of the faraway Europeans. In the Americas, archaeological evidence shows that trade goods made their way from what is now Canada to South America, and vice versa. Homer describes a United Nations amassing to fight for the Persian Empire against the Greeks.
Trade has always existed, it has always shrunk the world. Even the manner in which we think of globalization today, based on the trade of goods and ideas, became common place by the 18th century through the great European empires (meanwhile, in Asia, this process had long been underway, given the cultural connections between China and all the smaller nations around it from Japan to Vietnam).
For Sontag, though, her issue is with photographs. Throughout Regarding the Pain of Others, she keeps returning to photographs. She is, of course, one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to photographs, her landmark On Photography (1977) is still highly regarded. In many ways, Sontag seems to believe in the credo ‘pics or it didn’t happen.’
Thus, we return to Moynier and his claim to know what was going on in the four corners of the world in 1899. Sontag, besides taking issue with the lack of photographs, also calls on the fact that ‘the world’ Moynier spoke of, or we see in the news today, is a curated world. No kidding. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid than the New York Times’ claim to ‘print all the news that’s fit to print.’ That is also a carefully curated news source.
In Moynier’s era, Europeans and North Americans, at least the literate class, did know what was happening throughout the world. The columns of newspapers were full of international, national, and local news, just like today. And certainly, this news was curated. And certainly, the news tended to be from the great European empires. And that news about war tended to be about war between the great European empires and the colonized peoples, or occasionally between those great European empires. But that doesn’t make Moynier’s claim any less valid. He did know what was going on around the world. He just didn’t know all that was going on. Nor do I today in 2017, despite the multitude of news sources available for me. The totality of goings on world wide is unknowable.
And Sontag’s issue with Moynier is both a strawman and hair-splitting.
May 11, 2017 § 19 Comments
I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story. Of course, that is bloody obvious. But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US. He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War. The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.
He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War. And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC. He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.
And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory. There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts. But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials. Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative. They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.
In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal. This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance. And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man. In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.
The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then). Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.
An example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52). The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million). It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland. The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo. But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.
But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event. And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event. How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen? Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland). So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?
I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.
March 30, 2017 § Leave a comment
As regular readers will know, I have been working on the history and memory of Griffintown, Montreal for many years now. My book, Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out in May (the paperback will be out in the fall). And, of course, I have been working for a few years now with Montreal film-maker, artist, animator, and purveyor of all things creative, G. Scott MacLeod. Our project, 21 Short Films About Griffintown, is now up on the web for all to see.
This project is based on a walking tour of Griff Scott developed, and can be followed on your smart phone. We have 21 very short films of 21 sites around Griff, about their history and significance.
I like these clips, partly because Scott has done some great work contextualizing my stories of these sites with archival footage, his animations, and music, because all of this also minimizes my screen time. But also because it was a fun day that we spent wandering around Griff filming these. It was a hot August day in 2012, a day or two before I left Montreal for good. I had my dog, Boo, with me. He was all stressed out because of the move and had scratched his face raw. So he was with me because I had to keep him from scratching the infection. He trundled along with us in the 30C heat, usually with my foot on his leash as we filmed. Boo was a massive dog, around 150lbs, a Mastiff/Shepherd cross. He was a big, gentle giant. Boo died last year, so I see this project as a bit of a memorial to him, even if he doesn’t appear on screen.
February 22, 2017 § Leave a comment
Historians tend to take the long view of everything. We tend not to be make rash judgements of the world. We are just trained not to. And so, of late, I have been thinking of the longue durée of government and society. One of the truisms of history is that the government really has no bearing on the lives of the majority of any given state. Kings, queens, presidents, dictators, and prime ministers have come and gone and for the overwhelming majority of society, life carried on.
Sometimes the government’s policies came home, such as when a village’s young men marched off to war. Or a particularly oppressive government came to power and instituted surveillance. But even then, whether in medieval France or Ancient China, or Nazi Germany, for most people, the sun still came up, the fields still got tended, the factories still produced.
But all the while, something arose from Enlightenment thought. And this was the idea of the rationalization of government. By this, I mean the standardization of government and the state, and its attempts to impose itself in the lives of its citizens/subjects. Quite often, the growth of the state was met with resistance. In the early 1850s in rural Quebec, the guerre des éteignoirs broke out against the attempts of the Canadian government to impose a standardized, compulsory education on the children of the country. To call it a ‘war’ is a misnomer, it was a collection of violent acts of resistance. Still, it was a very dogged resistance. Yet, it was ultimately fruitless. State-sponsored education had arrived.
The mid-19th century was a period of massive state growth in Canada and the United States. Both nations got the idea from the British, where the growth of the state and government surveillance may have staved off the spread of the French Revolution to the British Isles. In the United States, of course, this process was both interrupted and sped up by the Civil War, as the federal state grew exponentially during the conflict, and has only continued to grow since.
This mid-19th century state building occurred through the imposition of the state into communities, through the construction of courthouses, post offices, and the like. And the buildings followed a standardized form, designed by the same architects. The Catholic Church had already figured out the value of standard design by this point, the state was a bit of a latecomer. But the effects were the same. Newly designed and constructed courthouses brought the state into a community. The uniformity of the buildings from one town to a next reinforced the impartial eye of the state. Back at the centre, the state also underwent tremendous growth, as new departments were created and new bureaucrats appointed to oversee this growth.
The process of the expanding state picked up from there, to the point now where it is nigh-on impossible to escape it. It is in our wallets in the form of our driver’s licenses and our Social Insurance/National Insurance/Social Security cards (to use the Canadian/British/American terms). It is on our cars as license plates and in the dashboard as registrations. It knows where we live. It knows where we work. It knows how much we work and how much we make. It knows intimate details of our lives.
You can see the effects of this and the various periods of state growth in any mid-size town to large city. For example, post offices tend to look the same, built either in the late 19th century or the mid-20th. Courthouses follow a similar plan, whether built in the late 19th century, the early 20th, or the late 20th, though they follow different plans based on era.
For example, Government Center in Boston is a massive neo-brutalist construction in the centre of downtown. Government Center houses Boston’s city hall, federal courts, state courts, and government offices at all three levels (city, state, federal). The building style is familiar.
The same sort of neo-brutalism exists very far away from Boston, in a different country. Winnipeg, Manitoba’s city hall is also a neo-brutalist construction. And this architectural style is repeated for government buildings (and university campuses) in nearly every city I can think of in North America. The style is immediately recognizable as the state, whether it’s Winnipeg’s City Hall or the campus of the University of Massachusetts — Amherst. We see this style of architecture and we instantly know its purpose.
These buildings are designed to be immovable and permanent, to show us the permanence of the state, and the implied power behind it. These are overwhelming buildings. Standing in Government Center, Boston, or Nathan Philips Square, Toronto, is an exercise of feeling one’s insignificance in the face of the state. When I went for my interview to receive my Green Card at Government Center, I thought about this, how insignificant my individual power was in the face of the state. Whether we think about this implicitly or explicitly, it is there. And that is the point (just as Edwardian era bank buildings make their point)
So we are left to believe that the state is unmoving and immovable. And so it is. But, something else has happened in the wake of this massive growth of the state, as it has invaded our wallets, our dashboards, and more. The power of the state has continued to grow, its presence in our lives in inescapable.
And thus, now, when government changes hands through the democratic process and a new one takes control, whether it is in Olympia, the capital of Washington state, or Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, or Washington, DC, or Ottawa, there is a very real possibility that it will change the lives of the people of that state/province/nation. Major governmental policy shifts on everything from foreign affairs to net neutrality to consumer protection laws to immigration laws impacts nearly everyone.
And this is something to think about as we enter the era of the Trump Administration in the US.
February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
I am reading Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. This nocturnal history of London was constructed through literature. He relies on everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare, amongst others to reconstruct the nocturnal London, though he focuses particularly on the 16th and 17th centuries. The Amazon reviews are about what you would expect, especially the negative ones. They castigate Beaumont for writing ‘history’ using ‘literature.’ And you can see the logic here. Literature isn’t history, it’s make-believe. It’s fiction. And I can certainly hear some of my professors saying the exact same thing.
I use fiction a fair lot when teaching. I assign ‘history’ for my students to read besides the textbook, but I also make wide use of fiction. This is true both in the case of literature and film. So how is literature history, you ask?
Literature is a reflection of the time in which it is written. This is true of historical fiction and non-historical fiction. The historical fiction of our era is a reflection of our attempt to find a way through changing and complex times. It is a reaching back for something simpler (as we imagine the past to be), or for an explanation of the world through the past. Literature, like film, reflects the mood of the times, the neuroses we, as a society, carry. What fascinates, puzzles, and frustrates us. It is, in many ways it is the id to our rational ego.
So Beaumont reconstructs a history of London through fiction, and in so doing, he discovers what London’s nighttime meant to writers in their time and their place in London’s past. Chaucer’s 14th century London is a very different beast from Shakespeare’s 16th and 17th century version, just as his is different from Charles Dickens’ 19th century London, which is different from Zadie Smith’s 20th and 21st century London. But each of those authors reflect the city as it was in those times and those places.
And while their stories may be fictitious, the city they are set in is not. Each of these authors takes great effort to reflect London, the London they knew, to their reader. And this is the point of using literature as an historical text. Fictitious as the stories may be, their settings are not.
And so Beaumont’s nocturnal journey through London after dark is, in fact, a history.
November 28, 2016 § 2 Comments
Fidel Castro died this weekend. He was 90. Whatever you think of him, and I am largely ambivalent, he was a giant of the past half century. He was the dictator of a tiny, poor Caribbean nation with a population about that of New York City, and yet, he was a giant on the world stage. Even after the Soviet Empire collapsed and all that support for Fidel’s Castro dried up, he maintained power. Of course, his was a totalitarian state and, yes, dissent was dealt with harshly. And, yes, millions of refugees fled in dire circumstances for the United States.
But, what I take issue with is the New York Times declaring that Castro was “the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959.” Um. No. He did not bring the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere. It was already here. One of the two major belligerents of the Cold War, the United States, is located just north of Cuba. The CIA, meanwhile, was already running around Latin America by the time Fidel and his revolutionaries marched into Havana in January 1959, overthrowing the corrupt American puppet-dictator, Fulgencio Batista.
In 1948, the United States interfered in a civil war in Costa Rica in favour of José Figueres Ferrer, in order to rid the country of Communist rule (hint, Costa Rica wasn’t communist). Six years later, in 1954, the democratically-elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, attempted to seize land belonging to United Fruit for a land redistribution programme. Instead, he incurred the wrath of the CIA, which, at best co-operated with, at worst, bullied, the Guatemalan Army, forcing Guzmán to resign. I could go on.
And at any rate, the Cold War came to the Western Hemisphere in 1945, a cypher clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa (Apparently the Times needs a reminder that Canada is in the Western Hemisphere?) walked out of the embassy and wandered over to the Ottawa Journal newspaper offices to tell his story. It took awhile, but Gouzenko became the first defector to Canada, complete with Soviet secrets.
The Times‘s headline about Castro bringing the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere is simply factually wrong. And this is what concerns me. History and facts DO matter, and to play fast and loose with them is dangerous. It leads to mis-information running rampant in society. We are currently reeling from revelations of the role of fake news sites in the Presidential Election. The New York Times, however, is usually regarded as the leading American newspaper, amongst the most well-regarded globally. It would behoove the headline writers, writers, reporters, and editors of the august institution to learn history.
October 31, 2016 § 2 Comments
I just recently received the cover art for my forthcoming book, Griffintown: Identity & Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood. It will be published in May 2017 by the University of British Columbia Press. To say I’m stoked is a minor understatement. The art work is by my good friend and co-conspirator on many things Griff, G. Scott MacLeod.