Magic Weapons cover spread.inddIn Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community After Residential School, Sam McKegney makes an important contribution to discourses that explore the role of literature in representing marginalized and/or contested histories. His focus on the work of authors including Basil H. Johnston (who also contributes an excellent foreword), Rita Joe, Louise Halfe, and Anthony Thrasher among others, brings much-needed attention to the ways in which the lens of trauma and psychoanalytic explorations of residential school experiences only tell part of the story. McKegney rightly highlights that calls for more awareness of these experiences should be accompanied by new visions for the future. He cautions against an orientation that privileges the past as the sole site of community-making and defining. 

He elaborates:

“Perceived over the past two decades as the principal vehicle for engaging the residential school issue, historicization (alone) dangerously orients our thinking away from the present and the future, binding us in a reactive manner to the power of the past. And, with compensatory and restructuring funds finally being freed from government coffers by virtue of the Reconciliation and Compensation Agreement (November 2005), imaginative visions for plausible futures of First Nations are essential. This is where the understudied resource of Native literature becomes so valuable” (6)

In exploring the history of the schools and the way in which individuals and communities have dealt with their legacy, McKegney asks, “What does literature do that history doesn’t?” (32) His book is an engaging, well-reasoned response to this question. 

McKegney, Sam. Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community after Residential School. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2007.

Also, a friend of mine recently informed me that today is National Aboriginal Day in Canada. For more information on the day, click here.

More reading highlights from the semester:

taussing-nervous1) Michael Taussig’s The Nervous System

Michael Taussig explores the ways in which the combination of state-sanctioned violence and a climate of silence engender a perpetual “state of emergency,” where the chaotic is the norm. His metaphor of the nervous system works well on several levels. In terms of memory work, it evokes the non-linear way in which an individual or community remembers. It also suggests an embodiment that, as we have seen in previous readings, is an important component when theorizing trauma. In addition, he explores the concept of “writing the nervous system” and explains that it “calls for an understanding of the representation as contiguous with that being represented and not as suspended above and distant from the represented” (10).  He inserts himself into this text, realizing that his own representations cannot be distanced from the represented; he blends the subject and object of study. At times, he addresses the reader explicitly, asking, “But what about people like yourself caught up in such matters? What sort of talk have you got?” and then, “What about myself, for that matter?” (29). This rhetorical technique helps to illuminate the “nervousness” in both Taussig’s content and style. 

In chapter 3, he raises some interesting questions about the academic process of contextualization, positing that it has become a sort of talisman, mystified in a way that suggests its knowledge translates into a guaranteed understanding of social relations and history. Instead, Taussig proposes that social relations and history themselves are “fragile intellectual constructs posing as robust realities” (45). And that our “contextualizing gaze” (45) creates a view that is too narrow, not allowing for creative blending within and between disparate spaces and times.

 2) John Jackson’s Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerityjackson-realblack

By using a diverse range of examples in the New York area, including the gentrification of Harlem, Black Jewish identity in Brooklyn and the politics of naming in hip hop, Jackson challenges ideas of racial authenticity and explores the potentials of sincerity.   Jackson’s book is a foray into “autoethnographic” work. He focuses on complications and intersections, practicing a “dark reading,” where he attempts to “feel, grope, invent, even pretend the real” (67). He is offering another way of meaning-making, an interpretive strategy that recognizes the role of the interpreter in relation to the messages that are received.  Anthropology, in other words, can have a dual nature, representing a complicated interaction between observed and observer.

As much as his book is about the difficulties involved in theorizing race, Jackson’s project is also a “rumination on the ethnographic project, itself a response to challenges arising from the alleged crises in representation and analysis of the late 1980s, crises that still haunt the discipline to this day” (9-10).  In response to this haunting, Jackson proposes the novel methodological technique of “channeling.” To deal with his own feelings of nervousness in asking subjects difficult or personal questions, Jackson channels the presence of more famous and accomplished ethnographers. He asks himself, WWZNHD? What would Zora Neal Hurston do? (24-25) Eventually, he finds that he needs to conjure up a whole new identity altogether, which leads to the rise of Anthroman.

The fears he believes accompanies ethnographic writing, what he refers to an “ethnographobia” are brought fully to the surface of his text (24). Anthroman is one of his coping strategies, an alter ego whose “Anthrosenses” won’t fail under pressure. In referring to himself in the third person, he disrupts the flow in his text, and highlights the constructed nature of his work. It is a methodological tool that illustrates his theoretical arguments. Jackson’s work recognizes the difficulty in reading his subjects, and explains that this is what sincerity demands: an acceptance of our “mutual impermeability” (87).  

I found Jackson’ work particularly interesting in his recognition of the ways in with ethnography is implicgated in the production of knowledge. For Jackson, ethnographic knowledge is produced through an acknowledgement of this “mutual impermeability” while simultaneously engaging with it.

At times, his own presence in his work is a little overwhelming. Still, the book is definitely worth-reading, providing an interesting example of creative and engaging ethnography.

The semester is finally winding down and although I have a few loose ends to tie-up, summer is on the horizon. So I thought I’d take a little time and post some reflections on my coursework and research from this past semester. 

A few books that I loved:


1) Human Rights, Inc. by Joseph Slaughter.

Slaughter begins his Preamble to the book with a quote from John Humphrey, principle drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone knows, or should know, why human rights are important.” (2) Slaughter goes on to discuss how the gap between what everyone knows and what everyone should know is relevant to discourses of both literature and law. He focuses on the connections between human rights and the novel, particularly the coming-of-age genre, Bildungsroman.

He writes:

“The novel genre and liberal human rights discourse are more than coincidentally, or casually, interconnected. Seen through the figure and formula of human personality development central to both the Bildungsroman and human rights, their shared assumptions and imbrications emerge to show clearly their historical, formal, and ideological interdependencies. They are mutually enabling fictions: each projects an image of the human personality that ratifies the other’s idealistic visions of the proper relations between the individual and society and the normative career of free and full human personality development” (4). 

It’s a fascinating read that ties together seemingly distinct discourses in interesting and unexpected ways. Chapter three, “Normalizing Narrative Forms of Human Rights: The (Dys)Function of the Public Sphere,” focuses on the ways in which reciting one’s story in a public setting, as ins the practice in some truth commissions, reveals the emphasis placed on storytelling in relation to the formation of the citizen-subject. 


2) The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada by Eva Mackey.

In The House of Difference: Cultural Politics and National Identity in Canada, Eva Mackey explores the ways in which multicultural and pluralist discourses, while espousing the rhetoric of tolerance, may in fact create a climate of intolerance and resentment. By examining the strategies of power at play in Canadian multicultural policies, Mackey challenges the national myth of an inclusive and tolerant Canadian society. Her explorations reveal how an account of national identity that focuses on pluralism may be a form of managing difference as opposed to allowing for difference to flourish.

Mackey utilizes several methods in order to explore the terrain of Canadian identity as it relates to policies of multiculturalism. She offers a re-reading of historical documents, analyzes iconic imagery (including painting, sculpture and photography) and their circulation, and conducts interviews with people around and about several events celebrating the 125th anniversary of Canadian confederation.  This eclectic approach strengthens Mackey’s points, highlighting the diverse ways in which multicultural discourses takes shape on both national and local levels.

In the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, it will be interesting to see how this myth of a tolerant nation will be affected.

kazuo_ishiguro3) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, follows the haunting tale of three friends who are “donors.”  The story moves back and forth between the present and the past, recounting Kathy H’s sometimes-tumultuous memories of two dear friends, Tommy and Ruth. Although the novel is set in the 1990s in England, it straddles the boundaries between a world that seems incredibly familiar, and one that is eternally distant. A sense of familiarity is created by the recounting of Kathy’s childhood and youth, including arguments with friends and first loves that will resonate with most readers. At the same time, a sense of distance is created by the realization that Kathy and her friends are part of a system where they are reared expressly for the harvesting of their organs.  The novel provides an interesting context in which to discuss issues of personhood, the ethics of biotechnology and human rights.


In his essay, “On Forgiveness,” Derrida discusses the paradox of granting forgiveness: true forgiveness consists of forgiving the unforgivable.  Throughout the essay, Derrida is working within the realm of contradictions. He negotiates the terrain between pure and mediated, conditional and unconditional, and individual and collective forgiveness.

Both forgiveness and reconciliation are concepts that have secular and religious interpretations.  Although there is a trend towards an attempted liberalization and secularization of reconciliation discourse, the theological undertones of reconciliation continue to play an important role in the way in which reconciliation takes place. As Derrida illustrates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s role as Chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission undoubtedly influenced the public’s perception of reconciliation in relation to forgiveness. The tensions between religious and secular conceptions of reconciliation also foreground the roles of individuals in comparison to those of the collective. Secular ideas of reconciliation tend to emphasize tolerance on the individual level and see amnesty on the collective level as a valid way to proceed. Religious conceptions of reconciliation, however, emphasize the idea of forgiveness and national healing.

Derrida argues that the concept of forgiveness is misplaced when used in relation to a national trauma. For example, he writes that “forgiveness must engage two singularities: the guilty (the ‘perpetrator’ as they say in South Africa) and the victim” (42). If a third party steps in to mediate this process (such as a national truth commission or juridical entity), pure forgiveness is no longer possible. Forgiveness then stays in the domain of the individual, not the state. And once the process of reconciliation has begun, pure forgiveness is no longer possible. Because once one embarks on a process of understanding the Other, the guilty, the perpetrator, the irreducibility and incomprehensibility of the Other is shattered. For Derrida, pure forgiveness “must plunge, but ludicly, into the night of the unintelligible” (49). Because reconciliation works to make sense of this unintelligibility, it drives one away from forgiveness.

At the end of this essay, he explores the implications of granting forgiveness. The granting of forgiveness implies a legitimate claim to power in order to do so. Derrida asserts that this form of power must be divorced from forgiveness; pure forgiveness is one without sovereignty (59). 

Derrida himself notes that he is ‘torn’ between the “ethical vision of forgiveness” and the practicality of reconciliation (51). His ruminations on forgiveness do not imply that reconciliation as part of a political process is impossible, nor that it should be avoided. Rather, he is arguing against the conflation of the two terms: forgiveness and reconciliation.

Derrida, Jacques. “On Forgiveness.” On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. New York: Routledge, 2001.

See VanAntwerpen for a fuller discussion:

VanAntwerpen, Jonathan. “Reconciliation Reconceived: Religion, Secularism, and the Language of Transition” in The Politics of Reconciliation in Multicultural Societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 25-47.

coombscover1In History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, Annie Coombs explores several specific sites of memorial in South Africa, highlighting the ways in which drastic political and social changes call for a re-negotiation of important historical sites. For example, Coombs explores the symbolic importance of Robben Island, as embodying both the troubled history of South Africa and the promise of a new future. Because of the central role it played in the discourse of political resistance under apartheid, the fate of the island during the shift to a post-apartheid society was hotly debated. It was eventually decided that the island should become open to the public as a tourist site. Former guardsbecame tour leaders on the grounds of their past incarceration. The site becomes a “living memorial,” where narratives continue to evolve. 

Her comparison of the Robben Island Museum with the District Six Museum allows her to contrast the ways in which other categories of identity, including gender, enter the discourses of oppression, loss and memorialization. The discrepancy she notes between the two museums is indicative of the importance placed on the struggles of the prisoners at Robben Island (including Nelson Mandela) as opposed to the families displaced by the forced relocation of District Six residents. Written before the completion of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Coombs can only speculate about the way in which the narratives understood through an examination of The District Six Museum and Robben Island are voiced in the new museum space. 

Coombs’ work on contextualizing the implications of a changing history on the physical representations of these histories is interesting in the Canadian context. The Canadian TRC, in other words, is only one way in which this neglected history will be explored. By the end of the TRC’s five year mandate, museums, public spaces and existing and new artwork will have to be reinterpreted.

nostalgiaIn The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym introduces several interesting theories regarding both the history and future of nostalgia. She distinguishes between restorative and reflective nostalgia, explaining that restorative nostalgia works on the assumption of a past “truth” and the goal of re-instating that past. Alternatively, reflective nostalgia deals with the feeling of longing and loss associated with nostalgia but does not actually try to recapture the past. The word nostalgia, Boym explains, is from the Greek “nostros” or home and algia or “longing.” Restorative nostalgia then is a desire to rebuild and return to this home, whereas reflective nostalgia is a constant deferral of a homecoming, incorporating the enjoyment of the distance between past and present, which savors the inability of return.

Early in the book, Boym introduces the concept of “off-modern,” explaining that the adverb “off” focuses our attention on a non-linear exploration of time and space. As opposed to the suffix “post,” it does not suggest a linear idea of progress, allowing for detours and roadblocks to be embraced and explored. By focusing on several different cities including Moscow, St. Petersburg and Berlin, the reader gets a sense that the exploration of nostalgia is one that traverses both space and time, a journey beyond physical borders. Boym’s explorations of these cities are often introduced through her own experiences there. She successfully integrates her own personal experiences in these cities-in-transition with larger political and cultural narratives of nostalgia. 


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