Collapsible Commons: Canadian Women, Cultural Production and Making National Narratives

Collapsible CommonsThe days of the “national narrative” are behind us, because Canada is too diverse and changing too rapidly for a single story to contain the complexity of women’s cultural production.

Instead, women writers create collapsible common spaces for what Rey Chow calls responsible engagement. The term collapsible invokes a tipi, a tent, or any movable dwelling place. The collapsible commons, then, are mobile spaces for engaging with the nation and its narrative while resisting being cemented by it. This project has three objectives: First, to study cultural production by Canadian women that crosses genres and poses challenges to traditional textual study (Nicole Brossard, Barbara Godard, Daphne Marlatt, Marie Clements, Sina Queyras, Rita Wong). Second, to situate the gendered cultural production under study within the broad history of using cultural production in Canada to forge national narratives of belonging and cultural citizenship. Collapsible Commons will claim that it is women’s cultural production in Canada that is the driving force behind the creation of spaces for genuine cultural belonging, but that the habitual national narratives efface gender in service of a totemizing narrative of what it is to be Canadian. Third, to conduct this research in both traditional and digital scholarly forums; the research will culminate in a collection of essays, but it will also take place within the online, open access Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory. This project will follow the lead of the subjects it studies and crack open the concept of a singular public space by building an open access commons that embodies the spirit of the commons and the mobility of its subjects.

Director: Erin Wunker, Assistant Professor of English and Canadian Studies, Dalhousie University

The Collapsible Commons project takes as its focus the role of recent women’s cultural production in creating collapsible commons, that is, spaces for what Rey Chow calls “responsible engagement.” Instead of revising historical accounts of women’s role in shaping national narratives that reinforce the status quo, I propose that new modes of scholarship are required in order to correct understandings of how Canadian culture works. The notion of the “commons” as both a literal and conceptual space for public interaction has been in circulation since the nineteenth century. The commons were once where people interacted with one another and with shared resources in public space, but with the shift to a capitalist, and now globalized economy, what was done in common space is now done in private. This project will sketch a cultural and intellectual history of cultural production in Canada as constitutive of a “common” space, and specifically consider how women’s cultural production has salvaged the spirit of the common by collapsing it. The term “collapsible” invokes a tipi, a tent, or any moveable dwelling place. The collapsible commons, then, are mobile spaces for engaging with the nation and its dominant narratives while resisting being cemented by them. This program of study aims to consider work by vanguard practitioners Nicole Brossard, Daphne Marlatt, and Barbara Godard, alongside emergent practitioners Marie Clements, Sina Queyras, and Rita Wong. I will connect these figures and their cultural production in two genealogical arcs, the first making way for the second by challenging generic boundaries between single-authored texts, habitual places of publication, and even what a text should look like. Read vis-à-vis Hardt and Negri’s controversial analysis of deterritorialized, decentralized forces, these women and their cultural production allow me to maintain both a specific focus on them and their work, and to advance an inquiry into the status of women and their cultural production in Canada.

A great percentage of the criticism of Canadian cultural production in the last two decades has focused on those cultural producers who have been marginalized in the national narratives, on the question of “nation” in an increasingly globalized and transnational world, or both. Critical writing about Canadian cultural production has preoccupied critics aware of their own struggles to articulate the role of cultural production in the forging of national identity (Brydon, Davey, Bannerji, Kamboureli, Siemmerling). This critical focus has been attendant to Canadian cultural production vis-à-vis the growth of transnationalism, and globalization has been received as the most recent turn in a long history of defining Canada against other nations. The earliest critical responses to Canadian cultural production endorsed the need for a distinctively national aesthetic, and while these more recent texts focus their attention beyond the Northrop Frye’s ubiquitous garrison as this project suggests there is more critical work to be done. My exploration of the role of women cultural producers in Canada addresses both the well- established discourses about cultural production and the forging of national narrative, as well as broadening the field of inquiry to take into consideration the global cultural economy. Further, by focusing on work by women spanning over two generations, my project will constellate around current Canadian responses to growing neoliberal challenges to public commons, be they geographic space, textual space, or hyperspace.