Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

17. Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson, “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology”


Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson’s article is a brief introduction to phenomenology and its usefulness for research into sports. “There are relatively few accounts truly grounded in the ‘flesh’ of the lived sporting body,” she writes, “and phenomenology offers a powerful framework for such description and analysis” (279). Phenomenology, the study of things as they present themselves to and are received in our consciousness, emerged in the work of Edmund Husserl “and now spans a wide-ranging, multi-stranded and interpretively contested set of perspectives” (279-80). “In general,” Allen-Collinson continues, “phenomenology seeks highly detailed, in-depth descriptions of subjective human experiences in specific contexts, and aspires to reveal their ‘essences’” (280). Her article is intended to give an overview of key “strands” in phenomenology, “identify central characteristics or qualities of the phenomenological method,” consider some of the ways phenomenology has been applied (particularly in sports studies), and “examine the potential of existentialist phenomenology”—particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty—“to offer rich analyses of sporting embodiment that evocatively portray the multi-textured experiences of the lived sporting body” (280). According to this article, phenomenology provides a language one can use to write and think about embodiment, and I find that encouraging. Perhaps I’m finally on the right track.

According to Allen-Collinson, who has published widely on embodiment and sports, phenomenology is not simply focused on individual experience:

in addition to overcoming Cartesian mind-body dualism and advancing detailed, grounded descriptions of phenomena (two of Husserl’s original purposes), phenomenology also provides a stance on embodiment that incorporates conceptions of bodies and action as socially and historically located, socially related and interacting from particular structural standpoints. Our bodies are thus acknowledged to be gendered, classed, “sexually oriented,” aged, “raced,” with differing degrees of dis/ability and corporeal variation. (280)

There are four tendencies within phenomenology—realist, constitutive or transcendental, hermeneutic, and existentialist—but Allen-Collinson argues that it is the last tendency that is likely to prove most relevant for investigations of embodiment (281). Existentialist phenomenology, as represented in the writing of Merleau-Ponty, “provides a ‘third way’ epistemologically and ontologically speaking, commencing not from the assumption of an objective world ‘out there,’ nor from a pure, constituting consciousness, but from a dialogic where world, body and consciousness are all fundamentally intertwined, inter-relating and mutually influencing” (283). One’s own body is the subject of perception in existentialist phenomenology, “the standpoint from which all things are perceived and experienced,” and therefore phenomena are not “merely abstract things out there in the world, separate from human consciousness and experience, but are part of our incarnate subjectivity” (283). In other words, we experience phenomena with our bodies, before reflection (thought) or language (283). 

At the same time, existentialist phenomenology also highlights the situatedness of human experience (283). It also argues that embodiment is always mediated by our interactions with other bodies (both human and non-human), something Allen-Collinson calls “inter-embodiment” (283). She also notes Merleau-Ponty’s notion of reversibility: the idea that sense perceptions are reversible, that we both touch and are touched, see and are seen, and that “our embodied subjectivity inheres in both our touching and our tangibility; the two are inextricably intertwined”—not just with other bodies but with objects and the general environment” (283). “Whilst all strands of phenomenology potentially offer insights into the sporting experience,” she concludes, “Merleau-Ponty’s form of existentialist phenomenology, with its focus upon embodiment, is particularly well-suited to the in-depth portrayal of the corporeally grounded experience of sport and physical activity” (284). 

Next, Allen-Collinson describes four themes or qualities that are general within phenomenological theory or research. The first is description, specifically descriptions of things in the world with reference to the person perceiving and recording them. The second is epochē or reduction: the work of suspending taken-for-granted assumptions about a phenomenon, something most contemporary phenomenological researchers acknowledge is an impossibility (286). The third is an interest in essences, the essential structures of experience, in order to derive knowledge in a systematic and disciplined way. The last theme is intentionality, the claim that consciousness is always directed towards something or someone (287). 

One form of phenomenological research that is common in the social sciences, Allen-Collinson continues, is something called interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA). IPA is a research approach that aims to explore in detail the sense-making activities of study participants in relation to their subjective experiences (288). However, this method has been confused with qualitative research in general, and some IPA projects lack phenomenological grounding and are phenomenological in name only. (I wonder if she includes the article on the phenomenology of long-distance walking that I wrote about yesterday in that category? The authors of that study were clearly more interested in positive psychology than they were in phenomenology.) Another research method that might be more promising is autoethnographic phenomenology, or “autophenomenography,” a rarely used research method, but one that can “provide the rich, evocative, textured descriptions of first-person experience” that are “central to the phenomenological quest to bring to life and to share with others the felt, lived, embodied experience” (291). “Phenomenology seeks to provide highly textured, evocative descriptions that locate the specifics of individual experience within broader, more general structures of human experience,” she continues, and “[a]utoethnography is thus one possible means of generating the rich, bodyful, fleshy, grounded and evocative descriptions of the body in sport and exercise” (292).

“Phenomenology can provide not only a theoretical and methodological framework for examining human subjectivity and embodiment in general,” Allen-Collinson concludes, “but also for investigating the specifics of socially located, socially related and interacting bodies” (293). It can also provide a way of combining personal experience with general or ethnographic categories, and of “creating rich descriptions that produce a feeling of understanding in the reader, of bodily knowing and sense-making as well as cognitive knowledge” (293).

Phenomenology seems much more likely to be a productive area of research for me, if Allen-Collinson is correct, in contrast to embodied cognition, and it’s clear that I need to read Merleau-Ponty if I am serious about exploring embodiment. I’m left wondering, though, if autophenomenography might not just be another word for good writing, writing that evokes sensory experiences effectively, and if there is any relationship between phenomenology and anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s much-cited “thick description.” Isn’t the point of thick description to create feelings of understanding in the reader? Is thick description just a characteristic of any decent autoethnographic writing? I don’t have the answers to those questions—but to be honest, I think those tangents can wait, at least until after I’ve finished reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. Completing that book is my next goal. I’m glad I read Allen-Collinson’s article, though, because it gives me a sense that I’m heading in the right direction, and that’s a good feeling.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

Allen-Collinson, Jacquelyn. “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology.” Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, vol. 1, no. 3, 2009, pp. 279-96. DOI: 10.1080/19398440903192340.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic, 1973.

16. Lee Crust, Richard Keegan, David Piggott, and Christian Swann, “Walking the Walk: A Phenomenological Study of Long Distance Walking”

cotswolds day 1.jpg

So, it’s clear that cognitive science isn’t the place to find a language that will help me write about the experience of walking. What else can I try? What about phenomenology? Yesterday, I started reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, and it seems promising, but a quick Google search turned up a phenomenological study of long distance walking (available here, outside of the journal’s paywall). Could it be useful? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to read it.

The authors of this study are more interested in positive psychology than they are in phenomenology; for them, phenomenology provides a methodological context, whereas positive psychology (particularly the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his various research collaborators) is their primary theoretical context. According to the authors of this study, there are three important concepts in positive psychology. First, there is the life of enjoyment: “savoring positive emotions and feelings” (244). Second, there is the life of engagement, which is an “immersion and absorption in what one is doing,” an absorption that is characteristic of flow experiences, which typically occur “when high levels of skill are matched with high levels of challenge” and are “characterized by feelings of effortlessness and absorption in a task” and tend “to be associated with optimal experiences” (244). Finally, there is the life of affiliation: deriving a sense of well-being, belonging, meaning and purpose through positive relationships (244). Because it seems unlikely to the authors of this study that long-distance walkers would walk only for reasons related to health and fitness, they believe that positive psychology could help us understand their walking experiences (244). The other theoretical context of the study is green exercise, or exercise that takes place in the presence of nature, which other studies have shown to have psychological benefits (244).

Apparently only one psychological study of long-distance walkers had been made prior to this one, a quantitative study involving questionnaires that produced some interesting results. However, the authors of this study believe that quantitative approach “only allowed a somewhat limited understanding of what is likely to be a complex subjective experience,” so qualitative methods that “focus upon the lived experiences of walkers are necessary” (245). They believe that a phenomenological approach to studying walking might also prove useful. Their definition of phenomenology is derived from an article on embodiment in sport by Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson: phenomenology is “an attitude to research rather than specific methods and can promote a contextual re/consideration of physical activity experience and a deeper understanding of how it actually feels to be an exercising body” (245). The theoretical engagement with phenomenology provided here is rather thin, but a quick glance at Allen-Collinson’s list of references demonstrates that she has engaged in the theoretical literature on phenomenology—including books by Sara Ahmed and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, both of whom are on my reading list—and that gives me hope that phenomenology might provide the kind of language or approach I have been looking for. Besides, this study is empirical, not theoretical, and it’s important to focus on what a text set out to do, rather than what it did not.

The purpose of the study described in this article is “to provide rich, descriptive accounts of the experience of long distance walkers,” experiences, the authors write, about which very little is known (245). Their method was straightforward: they conducted retrospective interviews with four long-distance walkers (four men and two women) in the U.K. They had recently completed one of that country’s long-distance footpaths, walks that lasted between six and 11 days and involved walking between 12 and 18 miles (20 to 30 kilometres) per day (245). “The present study employs a phenomenological method,” the authors write, “with the two essential criteria being that the participants have experienced the phenomena being studied and were willing and able to describe their experiences” (245). Their use of phenomenology is “an attempt to provide a completely empirical method that focuses on what an individual experiences,” they continue, noting that the phenomenological method is solely concerned with describing an event, object, or experience (246). “With few previous studies attempting to understand the psychology of long distance walking,” they write, “phenomenology would seem to be an appropriate method in enabling the collection of descriptive information  that could lead to a clearer understanding of the walkers’ lived world” (246). In practical terms, these researchers conducted unstructured interviews in which the participants were considered the experts, a method that generated “rich, descriptive accounts of the walkers’ experiences” (246). The data collected in those interviews was coded and analyzed according to standard qualitative social science procedures.

What were the results of this study? Before the walk, the research participants reported mixed emotions: their planning and preparations demonstrated their investment in the experience of the walk, but they also tended to be apprehensive about logistical issues, their fitness, the distance, and the chances of bad weather. That nervousness was accompanied by anticipation and excitement about the challenge. During the walk, they reported positive feelings, describing the walk as “an immensely enjoyable and rewarding experience,” with that enjoyment derived from many different aspects of the walk: the physical nature of the challenge and the way it tested their resolve (248); the scenic beauty of their route and being close to nature, which generated a sense of connection and reflects the life of affiliation (248, 251); and a sense of meaning derived from being part of something bigger and more permanent than oneself (251). “Participants clearly articulated that some feelings changed as the walk progressed,” the authors report, “and while enjoyment tended to characterize the whole walk, confidence and determination increased the further participants walked” (251). There was a general consensus that the concerns participants had before their walks dissipated and “were replaced by a determination to achieve the goal of finishing as the participants became more aware of how their own capabilities matched the challenge” (251, 253). Participants also reported feeling detached from the complex problems that exist in other areas of life; they “tended to contrast the experience of walking with work to describe a much reduced level of cognitive effort, and a release from responsibilities” (253). The also noted that they were able to reflect upon and solve complex issues by having the time to think through problems, while at the same time they enjoyed the simple tasks related to walking, such as finding their way (254). Reflection, then, was combined with “a focus and engagement with a pleasurable activity,” which “appears to have yielded a fulfilling and meaningful experience” (254). At the same time, the walkers reported that they enjoyed meeting other walkers and becoming part of a walking community (255).

Participants also described being completely absorbed by walking; their exertion often seemed effortless, and they sometimes lost track of time. This response suggests that they experienced what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow while they were walking. While they reported numerous challenges—getting lost, bad weather, sore feet, aching muscles and joints—“such issues were regarded as an integral and important part of the whole experience that paradoxically provided greater meaning and a sense of personal achievement at the end of the walk” (255). Overcoming those challenges required the use of a variety of strategies and techniques: some participants relied on personal characteristics, such as resilience, stubbornness, and self-confidence; others visualized the end of the walk; some used humour; some took inspiration from the scenery; and others thought about their walk in terms of “more manageable chunks” rather than thinking of it’s entirety (256). They described bittersweet feelings at the end of the walk: they experienced senses of achievement, pride, satisfaction, and joy, but they also felt sadness and loss because the walk was over (256). “This withdrawal response appeared to reflect a change in focus as the goal of completing the walk was achieved and the reality of returning to more common routines and responsibilities became more central,” the authors note (256). In some cases, though, the positive effects of the experience of walking lasted for many months afterwards, and all of the participants reported “a subjective sense of well-being” at their walk’s conclusion, including having a feelings of psychological well-being (having a clear and relaxed mind, positive attitude, and a sense of mental refreshment), physical well-being (experiencing increased feelings of fitness), and social well-being (having new and enhanced personal relationships) (257). 

“What the participants gained from the experience might best be termed personal growth,” the authors of the study state. “Participants reported a variety of enhanced self-perceptions, which included self-esteem, self-efficacy, and more global self-confidence” (257). Many of the participants in the study reported that they were able to reappraise aspects of their lives and gain new perspectives and new meanings (257). In addition, “[t]he experience of completing the walk, which was challenging and difficult for all, has since been used as a baseline from which to judge other life challenges. The result is that day-to-day problems were often down-graded in perceived difficulty due to more positive evaluations of individual capabilities to overcome challenges” (257). The walkers described their experiences as journeys of self-discovery, and noted that those experiences took place within a “bubble” that was “suitably detached from the stresses of modern life,” and which lasted for the walk’s entire duration and was both “immensely enjoyable and “mentally rejuvenating” (259). 

The study’s authors believe that it provides “a more comprehensive understanding of the potential benefits of long distance walking” (259), which they enumerate in detail. One interesting finding is that the participants reported that walking for a single day did not generate any of these feelings or experiences; it seems that multi-day, long-distance walking appears to have a cumulative effect that’s not possible in the course of a single day, a finding that contrasts with the evidence reporting large benefits from short engagements with green exercise (259). However, they also note that their methodology has limitations, in particular their use of retrospective interviews, which could lead to selective recall, and the small group of walkers who were studied. These findings, they caution, should not be generalized to a wider population of walkers (260).

I doubt that any of the findings of this study would be a surprise to anyone who has made a multi-day walking trip; they seem obvious, although perhaps it’s useful to have one’s own experiences confirmed by such a study. In fact, these responses to long-distance walking are so common that I often wonder why more people don’t engage in this activity. Even a long, challenging walk along highways and grid roads, like my walk to Wood Mountain, produced similar feelings and experiences for me, despite my blisters and exhaustion. More importantly, I have a sense from reading this article that, even though the theoretical perspective offered here is a little thin, the language of phenomenology might be useful for writing about the experience of walking, and so I will take on the phenomenological texts on my reading list with a sense of excitement and anticipation. I think I’ll take on Allen-Collinson’s article next, before returning to Sara Ahmed’s book, though, just to confirm that suspicion.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

Allen-Collinson, Jacquelyn. “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology.” Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, vol. 1, no. 3, 2009, pp. 279-96. DOI: 10.1080/19398440903192340.

Crust, Lee, Richard Keegan, David Piggott, and Christian Swann. “Walking the Walk: A Phenomenological Study of Long Distance Walking.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, vol. 23, no. 3, 2011, pp. 243-62. DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2010.548848.

15. Lee Maracle, My Conversations with Canadians

my conversations with canadians

I’m taking a short break from trying to find a language to talk about embodied knowledge. Sto:lo Lee writer Maracle is speaking here on Saturday night, and so I decided to read her book My Conversations with Canadians, even though, for some strange reason, it got cut from my reading list during one of my attempts at getting down to 130 books, and even though I might not be able to go to her talk, because I’m committed to be at a dinner party. So here I am, reading outside my list again. That’s not helping me reach my goal, is it? I need to start being ruthless about restricting myself to the list, or I’m going to find myself in serious trouble.

At least My Conversations with Canadians isn’t off topic, like some of the books I’ve been reading. It’s a collection of 13 essays: 12 are labelled as conversations (with Canadians, that is), and the final one is an address to the first conference on First Nations literature in India. Maracle—a fiction writer, poet, and self-described word artist (140)—knows a lot about First Nations literature, and she knows a lot about non-Indigenous Canadians (settlers and newcomers), from interacting with them at book launches, panels, and conferences. “Not a single Canadian has ever approached me to say: ‘Why are there so many injustices committed against Indigenous people?’ or ‘Why is there not a strong movement of support for justice and sovereignty for Indigenous people’s sovereignty movement in Canada?’” she writes at the beginning of the book (8). Instead, they ask other questions—ones Maracle finds puzzling or insulting or simply beside the point—and much of the book tracks her responses to them. Canadians, she writes, “are here at our goodwill and by our host laws and by way of honouring our treaties—should that happen. Most Canadians don’t see it that way, however. Nothing that happens to Indigenous people, no matter how unlawful, is of much consequence to many of the people occupying Indigenous territories” (8). In other words, Canadians don’t ask those questions because they don’t care about the answers. We prefer to believe that we are innocent—a myth Maracle describes as “inviolable” (10). Canadians believe, for instance, that Canada gave reserves to First Nations. Maracle’s response to this belief is characteristically blunt: “You cannot give someone something that already belongs to them” (11). “This is our country,” Maracle writes. “You were granted permission to live here and the conditions of that permission are embedded in treaties and recent court decisions. Nowhere in these treaties or court decisions does it say we grant you permission to take over management and control of our territories and lives” (124). But that’s exactly what Canada has done, and Canadians cannot see that taking over as the violation that it is. Our silence, Maracle writes, and our innocence, constitute “Canadian colonial strategy” (10).

That myth of innocence is powerful, according to Maracle: Canadians who protest their innocence in relation to colonialism continue to live more comfortably than Indigenous people. “The question of why settler Canadians get a better life off of my continent than Indigenous people does not pop into white men’s heads,” she writes, “or into the heads of other nice white women either” (75). Innocence, ignorance, and a deliberate lack of curiosity go together:

In Canadian people’s defense, they claim not to know what was going on. Well, everyone knew that Indigenous people came from here and non-Indigenous people came from somewhere else. No one became curious about how the shift from Indigenous authority over the land to Canadian authority over the land occurred, nor did they become curious about how our access to the land and its wealth became restricted. No one became curious about how Canadian law became the law that dominated the entire landscape. No one got curious about what was here before. (34)

When Canadians begin to get curious about any of this, when they begin to educate themselves, they still don’t ask the right questions. They ask Maracle, “What can we do to help?” (49)—a question she finds laughable, because it implies that Indigenous people “are responsible for achieving some monumental task we are not up to and so the offer of help is generous” (49). Maracle turns the question around: “Racism and colonialism and patriarchy are Canadian social formations, not Indigenous ones. We are not the only ones responsible for their undoing. If you participate in dismantling the master’s house and ending all forms of oppression, you are helping yourself. The sooner Canadians realize that, the better. . . . It is their responsibility to change their society, which is racist, colonial, and patriarchal to the core” (49-50). 

“What can we do to help?” is related to the question “What is reconciliation to you?” (137), which someone asked after Maracle gave a talk on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Maracle’s response to that question is scathing: 

“Well, stop killing us would be a good place to begin,” I answered. The audience laughed. “Then maybe stop plundering our resources, stop robbing us of our children, end colonial domination—return our lands, and then we can talk about being friends. I can’t believe we are having this conversation after you listened to my presentation about the murder of Indigenous women and children. It is embarrassing—not for me, but for you.” (137)

A reading in Hamilton, Ontario, turned out differently. The conversation turned to a discussion of the social responsibility of the arts and, Maracle recalls, “For the first time in my life I was sitting with Canadians I did not know and was having a great time” (64). A Canadian woman asked how to increase her level of curiosity about Indigenous people, and Maracle replied, “Do something about us, with us, and for us” (64). For example, she continued, churches in Owen Sound, Ontario, rang their bells every Friday in honour of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. People in the town got curious and invited her to speak with them, along with John Ralston Saul, and when she was there, she found the town to be warm and friendly (64-65). “Something will happen and curiosity will be sparked up and culture will be exchanged,” she continued. Maracle’s conclusion from these experiences is that Canadians don’t know much about Indigenous peoples (66-67). But Maracle doesn’t seem to dislike Canadians, despite their ignorance and claims to innocence; she even suggests that although it’s hard getting to know us, the journey is worthwhile (66). “Some of our people with Canadians would move back to their original homelands,” she writes. “Not me—I hope they fall in love with the land the way I have: fully, responsibly, and committed for life” (85). 

It’s hard for me to write about this book—to risk putting myself in what Maracle terms “the Knower’s Chair”: the position of being the one who gets to teach others, a position that, Maracle argues, Canadians refuse to give up in relation to Indigenous peoples (76). “[N]o white men I know have ever given up the Knower’s Chair willingly—they are always trying to educate me. They never seem to notice how annoying that is,” she writes. “I have met a few white women who have given up their Knower’s Chair. That gives me some hope for the future” (77). The person who occupies the Knower’s Chair refuses to reflect on what he (or possibly she, although Maracle’s pronouns suggest otherwise) knows:

You can mention any contentious subject about racism, sexism, or any other form of oppression, and your white male listener will avoid applying it to himself. Those who do that never get to experience the powerful and transformational aha moment of when you see what you are doing to up the stakes in a conflict. They will only go so far as to say yes to what you said. After that, the conversation is over. This agreement is the end of the road, and I suspect they are wanting forgiveness. There will be no discussion of the origin of the admission, no discussion of its history and the effect on the individual. The thing that moves them is forgiveness. For what? To be forgiven, the transgressor has to confess, but that did not happen, so does this mean the tearful white man is shedding tears of relief? After all, his place is intact, the Knower’s Chair is still his, and he does not have to change anything. (77)

Can I write about this book without occupying the Knower’s Chair? Or by writing about it, am I allowing Maracle to occupy that position? In other words, by writing about this book, am I learning from her? I would like to think so, but I could be wrong.

The question of forgiveness is important for Maracle, and her remarks make me wonder about the purpose of the apologies our governments have offered for this country’s colonialist past—especially since those apologies are never accompanied by any change in present or future behaviour. “We do not have forgiveness as a recurring theme in our culture,” Maracle writes:

If you hurt someone, own it, look at yourself, track where it came from, learn from it and make it right, continue to learn from it, continue to deepen your understanding, and grow from it. If you are transgressed, look at how it made you feel, inventory how you behave, and transform yourself—do not let the transgressions of others damage your authentic self. If you were hurt, look at the impact and effect of the hurt on you and make it right inside so that later you will not pass on the hurt to those who are innocent. Continue to learn from the behaviour. (76)

When I asked my Cree teacher how to say “I’m sorry,” he was genuinely stumped. “We don’t have a word for that,” he finally said. I know that, as Maracle says, every Indigenous nation is unique—“a Sto:lo is as much like an Ojibway as a Frenchman is like a Russian,” she writes (67)—but still, the emphasis on action, rather than apology, seems to operate across national and linguistic boundaries. And her remarks make me wonder what value there is in government apologies—especially when they are not accompanied by action. (I’m talking to you, Premier Moe.)

There is a lot more to say about this book: I haven’t discussed the essays about the colonial imposition of gender binaries, or Canada’s fixation with its multicultural identity, or the need to recognize oral literature along with written literature, or cultural appropriation. That last chapter is important, and I think it’s the only one that’s not actually addressed to settler Canadians—at least, not entirely. According to Maracle, all Sto:lo people owned were their stories, songs, and names—“this is our private, clan, family wealth,” she writes; “[t]hat was our private property” (100)—and so for someone to take those stories is a disinheritance (100). Appropriation is stealing, she continues, “so in order for appropriation to occur, theft must travel with it and receive either resale or profit or personal royalties as a benefit from its use,” while “the original owner must lose the use, benefit, authority, and ownership (as control) over the appropriated item; otherwise it is simply sharing” (101). “Appropriation can occur only if the person doing the appropriating has no prior authority or birthright or permission to access the item and no permission from its original owner to use and benefit from the item” (101). Both land and knowledge were appropriated during colonization, and much of that knowledge ended up in universities, from which Indigenous people must buy it back in the form of courses (101-02). Because of the loss of land and knowledge—and it’s clear that these are inextricably linked—Indigenous people began to think they had no knowledge (105). “Today we struggle to reclaim our knowledge, to articulate and create literary and scholarly works from it, and to end the theft through writing that characterized 120 years of prohibition, theft, and abrogation of our ancestors’ authority and ownership of knowledge,” Maracle writes. “For us to reclaim knowledge, we must re-aggregate it and we must build institutions to accomplish this” (106). Those institutions, however, must be open to Indigenous children and young people; the transmission of Indigenous knowledge to them is of paramount importance, even though ensuring transmission of that knowledge while protecting it from those who would appropriate it is difficult and complicated (107). “No one but our children are entitled to our knowledge, stories, law, teachings, science, or medicine,” Maracle argues, and therefore cultural protocols—giving gifts of tobacco to Elders, for example—are only intended for outsiders or foreigners, for non-Indigenous people, and not for Indigenous children. Much of this argument, I think, is directed at other Indigenous people who ask their children and young people for something in exchange for knowledge, or at universities, where that knowledge is commodified. I’m not sure about that, but for much of the chapter on cultural appropriation, I felt like I was overhearing a conversation, rather than being spoken to directly. That’s not a complaint, just an observation.

My Conversations with Canadians is an important book, particularly now, with militarized RCMP officers occupying Wet’suwet’en territory and arresting people who are defending the land and the water. “I have laws, I have politics, I have beliefs, I have story,” Maracle writes:

What I don’t have is access to my land—someone else is preventing me to access my land by dint of the bayonet and maintains it by a host of laws that are enforced by your hired guns (police and army). Do not mistake my kindness in not responding to your hired guns for a deluded belief in your centrality. Do not mistake my kindness for acceptance of the right of access to my land or for the absence of my love for it. Further, do not mistake my kindness for a relinquishment of who I am and who I will always want to be. (132)

“Settlers ought to look at their history, then look in the mirror,” Maracle continues. “After annihilating our populations, and much of the animal life on this continent and on the oceans, and after spoiling the air, the lands, and the waters, who would want to be you?” (132). Put that way, who would? I wouldn’t. How sad that is. I am glad, though, that I read this book, even though it’s not on my reading list. That omission was a mistake and it’s good that I’ve been able to correct it.

Works Cited

Maracle, Lee. My Conversations with Canadians. BookThug, 2017.

14. Lawrence Shapiro, Embodied Cognition

embodied cognition

After not learning much about embodiment or embodied knowledge from the last book I read, I decided to go outside of my list in order to try to find something more helpful. When I looked at the library’s database, I didn’t find a whole lot about embodied knowledge; however, I did discover that a lot has been published about embodied cognition. Maybe I should read an introductory text on that, I thought. Maybe that’s the field of inquiry I’ve been trying to find. And that decision brought me to Lawrence Shapiro’s book, Embodied Cognition.

Shapiro describes the aims of his book on the first page: “to introduce and develop the central themes of embodied cognition,” and to assess “the relationship between embodied cognition and standard cognitive science” (1). These are important questions, he writes, because what our minds are like matters to our understanding of who and what we are (2). Standard cognitive science is a clearly defined and demarcated field of inquiry which claims that “cognition involves algorithmic processes upon symbolic representations” (2). In other words, for standard cognitive science, cognition is like a computer: our brains are the hardware, and our minds are the software (41). Embodied cognition, however, is different. According to Shapiro, there are three themes in embodied cognition. The first is Conceptualization (the capitalization is Shapiro’s), which argues that 

[t]he properties of an organism’s body limit or constrain the concepts an organism can acquire. That is, the concepts on which an organism relies to understand its surrounding world depend on the kind of body that it has, so that were organisms to differ with respect to their bodies, they would differ as well in how they understand the world. (4)

Humans and, say slugs—if slugs are capable of cognition, that is; sentient slugs, perhaps—would therefore understand the world in different ways because of their different bodies. That’s because that organism’s understanding of the world “is determined in some sense by the properties of its body and sensory organs” (66). The second theme is Replacement:

An organism’s body in interaction with its environment replaces the need for representational processes thought to have been at the core of cognition. Thus, cognition does not depend on algorithmic processes over symbolic representations. It can take place in systems that do not include representational states, and can be explained without appeal to computational processes or representational states. (4)

Our interactions between our bodies and our environment are the key to cognition, according to this theme, rather than computations going on in our brains. For Replacement, “the computational and representational tools that have for so long dominated standard cognitive science are in fact irremediably defective, and so must be abandoned in favor of new tools and approaches”—tools and approaches that don’t use a vocabulary filled with computational concepts (68). The final theme is Constitution: “The body or world plays a constitutive rather than merely causal role in cognitive processing” (4-5). For this theme, our bodies and/or our environment constitute—at least in part—cognition, rather than just whatever is going on in our heads. According to Shapiro, Constitution is “a commitment to the idea that the constituents of the mind might comprise objects and properties apart from those found in the head,” so that “mental activity includes the brain, the body, and the world, or interactions among these things” (68).

Before Shapiro discusses these themes—he calls them “themes” because he doesn’t think embodied cognition has yet acquired to coherence of a theory—he presents an overview of standard cognitive science. This way of looking at cognition claims that our minds are like computers—in fact, since the 1960s cognitive scientists have been trying to create computer software that mimics human cognition. According to this version of cognition, the environment in which an organism exists, and the body of that organism, do not matter to that organism’s cognitive processes: “cognition is computation, computation operates over symbols, symbols begin with inputs to the brain and end with outputs from the brain, so it is in the brain alone that cognition takes place and it is with the brain alone that cognitive science need concern itself” (26-27). In other words, cognition is solipsistic: subjects are merely passive receivers of information, and if you give inputs to their computational processes, the rest of the world makes no difference to those processes—a model many cognitive scientists endorse (26). Embodied cognition, though, takes a very different approach to cognition. It “resists the idea that cognition is solipsistic, and so rejects the idea that subjects are passive receivers of stimulation” (27).  Instead, according to embodied cognition, our bodies and our environments are part of cognition. For Shapiro, embodied cognition raises a couple of key questions: How might the body contribute to or constrain our psychological capacities? Is the body a constituent in psychological processes? What from standard cognitive science can be retained, and what ought to be abandoned? (50).

Shapiro’s next move is to attempt to present a common background of embodied cognition, with reference to several multidisciplinary research projects. For some researchers, cognition is embodied action: it depends on the kinds of experiences that come from having a body with sensorimotor capacities—that is, a body that moves and collects information from its senses—and these sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a wider biological, psychological, and cultural context (52). Other researchers claim that cognition depends on the experiences that come from having a body with specific perceptual and motor capacities that are inseparably linked, and that together form a matrix within which various aspects of cognition take place (56). Still others claim that the body is not merely a container for the brain, or a contributor to the brain’s activities, but is the brain’s partner in cognition (66). 

Following that attempt at a general description of embodied cognition, Shapiro reviews research that, in his judgment, falls into the Conceptualization theme. The research of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is central to this discussion. According to Lakoff and Johnson, we understand basic concepts with reference to our bodies and their motion (88). Our minds, they contend, are biological and neural, not symbolic; our thought is embodied; the vast majority of our mind’s activity is unconscious; and abstract thought is metaphorical and uses the same sensorimotor system that runs our bodies (92). For Shapiro, the claims of Conceptualization are trivial (112), and standard cognitive science has computational explanations for many of the problems that Conceptualization claims cannot be explained by it (113), and many advocates of Conceptualization do not understand the science they “seek to topple,” especially Lakoff and Johnson (113). For these reasons, Shapiro concludes that Conceptualization is not a promising research theme.

Replacement, for Shapiro, is the theme that is the most self-consciously opposed to the computational framework that is at the core of standard cognitive science (114). Its proponents suggest that dynamical systems theory, rather than computational theory, would provide the right tools to investigate cognition (115) in a way that is committed to embodiment and situatedness—that is, to the body and its place in an environment (116). Dynamical systems theory, however, consists of a complex mathematical apparatus that attempts to describe how things change over time (116), and if it’s true that “[c]ognition emerges from dynamical interactions among brain, body, and world” (125), the resulting equations would be impossibly complicated. “Indeed,” Shapiro notes, “a common criticism of dynamical approaches to cognition is that they are practically intractable except in the simplest cases” (127-28). Shapiro concludes that the Replacement theme also falls short, because the kinds of behaviour that dynamicists have investigated “represent too thin a slice of the full cognitive spectrum to inspire much faith that embodiment and situatedness can account for all cognitive phenomena” (156).

Lastly, Shapiro takes on the Constitution theme. Proponents of this theme argue that cognitive processes extend beyond the brain (158). Some suggest that the body is part of the mind; others that the mind extends beyond the body and into the world—a view known as extended cognition (158-59). Unfortunately, much of the debate over constitution takes the form of a thought experiment, in which a brain is kept alive in a vat. When brains can be separated from the bodies that house them, I’ll take such thought experiments seriously. More sensible is the suggestion that when we write something down in a notebook in order to remember it, the pencil and paper we are using are part of our cognitive processes (185). 

In his conclusion, Shapiro argues that Conceptualization offers poor explanations of cognition (205-06), compared to standard cognitive science, and that while Replacement offers better explanations of particular phenomena, it is best thought of as an extension of standard cognitive science, rather than an alternative (207). Constitution, on the other hand, is not in competition with standard cognitive science, despite the intentions of some of its proponents (208), because “one can pursue Constitution with the assistance of explanatory concepts that are central to standard cognitive science,” something that cannot be said of Conceptualization or Replacement. In fact, Shapiro argues that Constitution pushes the boundaries of standard cognitive science—perhaps farther than many of its practitioners would have expected.

What do I make of this whirlwind introduction to a complex field I barely understand? Well, for starters, I think that standard cognitive science seems to be based on a metaphor that isn’t acknowledged as a metaphor: the brain is a computer, and our minds are that computer’s software. After all, the field seems to have arisen only after the invention of computers, and its first research projects were computer simulations that attempted to mimic our brains. What if the brain is something very different from a computer? What happens to that metaphor in that case? And does it make sense to try to separate mind and body? When I’m walking a long way on a hot day and I start to get heat exhaustion, the first symptoms include irritability and confusion. Doesn’t that suggest the link between my body and my cognitive processes? What about the recent studies that suggest that populations of gut bacteria have an effect on depression? Don’t they suggest that it’s foolish to attempt to separate mind and body? What would happen if cognitive scientists talked to neuroscientists about what’s actually going on in our skulls, instead of relying on thought experiments and simulations? Wouldn’t their theories end up being grounded in something other than a metaphor (and a pretty tired one at that)? My immediate impulse is to side with those who see a connection between mind and body, rather than a separation, and while I appreciate the care with which Shapiro works through the claims made by proponents of the various themes of embodied cognition, I wonder if his conclusions about those themes are warranted. Part of the problem, I think, is that Shapiro wants to see experimental data about embodied cognition, a field that is far too complex to generate such data. After all, if it’s true that our minds, bodies, and environment are interconnected in fundamental ways, how would those interconnections be measured? Maybe those experiments are less useful than Shapiro thinks they are.

Perhaps I need to spend more time investigating embodied cognition. I could, for example, read Lakoff and Johnson’s huge book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, even though it’s not on my list, despite Shapiro’s dismissal of their work. Or I could look at theories of embodied learning. I’m not sure where to proceed, but I still have a sense that embodiment is an important part of my research, and that I need to find a way to think and write about it. 

Works Cited

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic, 1999.

Shapiro, Lawrence. Embodied Cognition. Routledge, 2011.

13. Celeste Snowber, Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living, and Being through the Body

embodied inquiry

One of the things I’m interested in exploring is embodied knowledge—that is, knowledge that is produced by the senses and held by the body. Maybe the embodied quality of that knowledge is only metaphorical; maybe that knowledge is actually in the brain and not in the body. I don’t know. That’s one of my questions. Anyone who has learned to ride a bicycle, though, has had an experience of embodied knowledge. Otherwise, the hard-won combination of motor skills and balance and forward movement involved in cycling wouldn’t come together, and that ability would be forgotten—something that never happens, we’re told: “It’s just like riding a bike!” is a cliché, perhaps, but it’s also true. 

I’ve had what I think are experiences of embodied knowledge through walking, although I don’t know much about the process of embodiment and don’t have a language with which to speak of it. That’s why I added Celeste Snowber’s Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living, and Being through the Body to my reading list. I had hoped that Snowber, a professor of arts education at the University of British Columbia, might offer a systematic approach to thinking about embodied knowledge. I’m planning to read some phenomenology as a way of approaching this topic, but I thought that this short book might be a better place to start. However, I was disappointed: the book is idiosyncratic, poetic, autobiographical, and meditative—more of a New Age self-help guide than a cogent theorization of embodied inquiry or embodied knowledge. That’s fine, if that’s what you’re looking for; unfortunately, it’s not what I need right now. 

“In this book, I invite you to see the body as a place of inquiry, a place of learning, understanding and perceiving,” Snowber writes in the book’s preface (xiii). Her approach, she suggests, has been developed by reading broadly in a variety of fields, “including poetics, curriculum studies, phenomenology, arts-based research, deep ecology, feminist studies, and of course, from the experience of daily life,” and this book is intended to be a companion “to the vast scholarly work done in embodied ways of knowing and inquiry” (xiv). I was hoping that this book would make more references to that “vast scholarly work,” but it doesn’t. Instead, Snowber describes her book as inspirational, as “[a] map to your own pilgrimage back to befriending your body” (xvi). I don’t need inspiration or to befriend my body, however; I need a theoretical language I can use to think about the relationship between embodiment and knowledge.

The first chapter is written from the perspective of the reader’s body. “My sentences are formed with the grammar of the gut,” Snowber writes. “This is a grammar that is often left at the doors when policies are being made or enacted. Though this is perhaps where I am most needed” (4). Unfortunately, the phrase “the grammar of the gut” reminds me of the current occupant of the White House, who relies on his faulty intuition, his “gut,” on important issues, like climate change, rather than conferring with people who know what they are talking about and making policy decisions based on evidence. The body needs to move, to play, to connect “to the magic of the life force through the magic of the body” (6), to be befriended. “[T]he deeper truth is that you were all born with the knowledge that you are bodies, not just have bodies,” Snowber writes, but “you soon learned from your culture and teachers that bodily knowledge was not valued as much as head knowledge” (7). That might be true, but claims like “the mind ceases productivity in response to the body being cramped” (7) are offered without evidence here, as aphorisms or self-evident truths, and that kind of writing isn’t helpful for me in this project.

Snowber argues that solitude is an important aspect of embodied inquiry. Her example of solitude is her daily practice of walking alone near the Pacific Ocean. On those walks, she attends to the land—the hills she climbs or descends, the native flora (19)—but I found myself wondering whether she might not be able to give similar attention to the land by walking with others. She takes her students out on silent group walks, for example (20-21). Snowber suggests that solitary physical activity spurs one’s creativity, and offers her daily walks as an example of “a practice where physicality and mindfulness meet” (17). However, she is not only interested in making time to be alone, “but the way in which one inhabits time” (20). That’s an interesting turn of phrase, but I don’t understand what it means, and it isn’t explained. However, someone looking for such explanations—someone like me, that is—is looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place: Snowber writes, “This book is not a fancy methodology, but an invocation to bring aspects to our lives which will infuse our vocation, creativity, research, skills that can bring restoration and inspiration” (22). In other words, don’t look for anything as clear-cut as a methodology here. When I got to that sentence, I should’ve stopped reading, because a methodology is pretty close to what I was hoping to find here.

The word “invocation” suggests Snowber’s interest in the connections between spirituality, sensuality, and the sacred. “Embodied ways of inquiry are an invitation to dwell more richly in the territory of the sensual life, where all of life is both sensual and sacred,” she writes (27). “Feeling the wind on the face, the blood of life running through our cells, the ecstasy of a bending tree, the freshness of water on flesh, the colour of an apricot, or the joy of jumping are all forms of sensuous knowledge,” she continues (27). All of us have experienced those things—at least, I hope we have; on my most recent long walk, I had similar sensual experiences. How do those experiences generate knowledge, however, and where is that knowledge kept? This book cannot answer those questions; that’s not its purpose.

In her chapter on writing, Snowber thinks about breathing and writing, walking and writing, grief and writing, and movement and writing (44-48). She considers writing from places of fragility or vulnerability (50-51). “Writing from the body gives you the opportunity to honour each subtle and bold sensation of life; to respond to the world and ourselves,” she writes. “Therefore everything is material for writing and listening to our lives and the grammar of our own lived experience” (51). I’m not sure those musings are helpful for me. What is helpful, however, is her reference to Mihaly Csikszentmihályi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Of course, I thought when I saw his name—I should be reading that book, not this one. Of course, I could add Csikszentmihályi’s work to my reading list, couldn’t I?

Snowber writes about listening, but in a metaphorical way: “The entire body hears,” she claims (55). “This listening isn’t just between ourselves and our bodies, but it is body to body, earth to earth, earth to body, and to what is beyond” (58). Clearly she isn’t talking about a literal form of listening, but rather listening as connection between ourselves, our environment, and something beyond the physical. In her chapter on the body and paradox, she suggests that our limitations—injuries, for example—are places of generativity, of creativity (65). “Instead of being perplexed by the paradox of the body, perhaps it is time to praise it,” she suggests (71). However, I really don’t know what to make of statements like this one: “Our bodies are the earth. The earth is our body. In my practice of walking, dancing and writing in connection to the landscape and seascape I keep living these words” (77). Yes, we are not separate from the natural world, although our culture and economy do their best to assert such a separation. But how do creative or embodied practices help us to live that truth? Isn’t there a difference between being and knowing, between ontology and epistemology, that is being elided here?

Asking such questions about this book, though, is like breaking a butterfly on a wheel: Embodied Inquiry isn’t intended to answer those kinds of questions—in fact, I would argue that it deliberately refuses to engage with them. It is a personal and eccentric book, and although I’m sure many people have gotten a great deal out of it, it’s not what I need right now. Clearly I need to do more research into embodied knowledge, or whatever term the library’s databases use to categorize that field of inquiry. After all, Snowber says that the scholarship in this area is vast; I need to dig into it, but in a much more careful way. Going by the use of the word “embodied” in a book’s title isn’t good enough. That much I’ve learned.

Work Cited

Snowber, Celeste. Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living and Being through the Body. Sense, 2016.

12. Craig Fortier, Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism

fortier unsettling the commons

When I read Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe on hegemony, I was wondering how a hegemonic formation that respected First Nations sovereignty might be created in Canada. But according to Craig Fortier, an assistant professor of social development studies at Renison University College in Waterloo and the author of Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism, that’s the wrong question to ask. Contemporary anti-authoritarian movements, Fortier argues—a category that includes a variety of movements against economic, gendered, and racial oppression, including queer liberation, migrant justice, anti-gentrification, prison abolition, anti-imperialism, gender liberation, environmentalism, and disability justice—are inherently non-hegemonic rather than counter-hegemonic, because although they seek radical change, they do not intend to take or influence state power (78). In fact, those anti-authoritarian movements are, by their very nature, both anti-capitalist and anti-state: their goal is the dismantling of state structures, rather than their remaking. Instead, those movements seek to establish a new commons. However, for Fortier that new commons needs to be a decolonized one: “there must be a commitment to dismantling the state, heteropatriarchy, capitalism and imperialism by also divesting from the logics of settler colonialism,” he writes, and the new societies that will result from this dismantling will of necessity be “forged through relationship building and support for Indigenous reclamations of space” (50-51).

Through interviews with anti-authoritarian activists in Canada and the U.S., Fortier seeks to answer a series of questions in this book: 

what is the commons? How should commoning be practiced? What does it mean to build social movements to [re]claim the commons on stolen land? And what does a politics and practice of decolonization look like for non-Indigenous peoples seeking to resist the state while also trying to support Indigenous people in their struggle for self-determination? (15). 

In fact, it is that last question that occupies Fortier’s thinking: “a politics of unsettling and decolonizing are not only different from other forms of liberatory struggles in settler colonial states but are foundational to their success,” he argues (17). Nevertheless, “there are significant roadblocks ahead as we are faced with questions about how to struggle for liberation on stolen land,” he continues. “This is why it’s important to examine the contradictions that come up when seeking to (re)claim the commons in a settler colonial context” (17). I’m an artist, not an anti-authoritarian activist, and my goal is not a (re)claiming of the commons, but I am interested in the contradictions involved in working against colonialism while living on stolen land, and so I was interested in what Fortier has to say about that challenge.

Fortier starts his study with the Occupy movement and various occupations that were part of the “global opposition to neoliberal austerity policies that followed the 2008 financial crisis” (20). Those occupations were “incubators for experimentation in developing alternative forms of social relations outside of the logics of capitalism and have been described as engaging in the practice of reclaiming or re-negotiating the commons”—that is, reclaiming a space outside of state control, opened by those who live on it and shared according to rules they create (20). But, like all social movements, Fortier writes, “those struggling for the commons are also full of contradictions” (21). The main contradiction is that of creating a commons on stolen land—the struggle, Fortier argues, “to imagine liberation in a way that addresses really important questions about relationships to Indigenous peoples, the territories on which the movements took place, and a reckoning of the histories that structure the context in which we struggle today” (23). Attempts to (re)claim a commons on stolen land that do not address those questions, according to Fortier, risk perpetuating settler invasion and Indigenous dispossession (23). Because Occupy Wall Street did not push for liberation outside the context of settlement, for instance, it remained “implicated in the dispossession and erasure of Indigenous peoples from their own territories” (25). “The problem with the idea of the commons in settler states,” Fortier continues, “is that it evades the question of ongoing settler complicity in the project of genocide, land theft, assimilation, and occupation” (30). Settlers—even or especially those in anti-authoritarian movements—need to come to terms with their complicity in this ongoing history. As Clare Bayard, one of the activists Fortier interviews, points out, “The difficulty that a lot of non-Native people have in imagining what unsettling would look like in this country is that it’s not seen as a political possibility. . . . We can’t even imagine what that would look like—how do we do that?” (32). For Fortier, this question “speaks to the normalization of settler colonial logics even within liberatory visions of other worlds. . . . settler colonial logics are so deeply ingrained in our lives, including those of us within the anti-authoritarian current, that it seems impossible to imagine what decolonization would look like” (32). As a result, those anti-authoritarian political projects can end up being antagonistic to Indigenous attempts to assert sovereignty, and “non-Indigenous activists may sidestep their own complicity in the creation and perpetuation of settler colonial space” (37). Artists might find themselves sidestepping their own complicity in the perpetuation of that space as well.

Any resistance to things as they are—resistance against gentrification, “racist immigration and border policies,” heteropatriarchy, or environmental destruction—always takes place on top of both settler colonialism and Indigenous resistance to dispossession, Fortier contends (48-49):

This double-bind of being made by but also trying to surpass colonized subjectivity means that any struggle within the settler colonial context will always be tied by the logics of settler colonialism unless activists work to build decolonial relationships with Indigenous peoples and amongst each other that relinquish claims to settler futurity. (49)

Fortier doesn’t define “settler futurity,” unfortunately, although he does gesture to articles by Eve Tuck and Ruben Gaztambide-Fernández, and K. Gardner and Gibwanisi, on this point. (Please, people: remember your audience. If you are using a term that others may find unfamiliar, one that cannot be found in a decent dictionary, provide a definition.) “By working to create deep, long-term, and accountable relationships with Indigenous struggles for decolonization and self-determination,” Fortier writes, “non-Indigenous people can open up the possibility of sharing in a decolonial future” (50). However, creating those relationships is difficult and full of potential pitfalls. One might admire the political, spiritual, and social practices of Indigenous peoples, for instance, but that admiration can easily slide into appropriative and harmful behaviours (52). Any borrowing from Indigenous peoples needs to be respectful and take place through a process of relationship building and dialogue (54-55). “What is often missing from movements seeking to reclaim the commons—in whatever form they might take—is the presence of relationships that centre Indigenous practices, traditions, and protocols without seeking to incorporate them into a broader naturalized settler politics,” Fortier writes (57). Settlers must be willing to learn from Indigenous people with humility and accountability (63), to become co-conspirators rather than allies (64), and to accept the leadership of Indigenous communities (93). This process means becoming vulnerable (88), realizing that everything you know has to be questioned (88-89), and accepting the partiality of one’s knowledge (90). “While this uncertainty is unsettling,” Fortier writes, “that’s precisely the point: unsettling should be unsettling. The process of unsettling our movements is not simply an individual transcendence of racial prejudices and feelings of entitlement, guilt, or shame.” Rather, “it is a collective transformation of the knowledges and worldviews that shapes societies, and individual’s interactions, and the way these territories are inhabited” (89).

In practical terms, relationships between anti-authoritarian activists and Indigenous communities can be created by working together. As an example, Fortier cites demonstrations against tar sands pipelines, demonstrations that were created through relationships between non-Indigenous activists and Indigenous land-based struggles, using a diverse range of tactics and strategies that included “lobbying, community research and education, rallies and protests, fundraising, legal interventions, direct actions and blockades, traffic disruptions” (66). But some of Fortier’s demands are more abstract. For instance, he argues that 

non-Indigenous activists have a responsibility to move beyond acknowledging their settler complicity toward incorporating and integrating decolonizing relationships into all of our strategies, tactics and campaigns (even those that on the surface do not seem to relate to Indigenous sovereignty). (93)

To be honest, I’m not sure what that would look like, although Fortier also suggests that it is important “to learn from the place-based philosophies and strategies of mobilization that influence Indigenous processes of resurgence and decolonization” (95)—as long as such learning could take place without appropriation, of course. In his final chapter, Fortier gives one possible example of how this works in practice: the creation of Oshkimaadziig Unity Camp by union activists from York University and members of the Anishinabek Confederacy to Invoke our Nationhood in Awenda Provincial Park, some 200 kilometres north of Toronto. That camp, which lasted four years, “was an example of a commons that situates practice, place, and relationships at the heart of its work,” as well as being “a direct invocation of Anishinabek nationhood and sovereignty,” “an assertion of the connection between this nationhood and the land,” “an interruption of settler colonial sovereignty,” and “an invitation to re-negotiate human and non-human relationships based on traditional Anishinabek knowledge” (102). “For the organizers of the camp,” Fortier writes, “this meant acknowledging the long-standing co-stewardship of these territories between their nation and Haudenosaunee peoples. It also emphasized their desire to invite non-Indigenous people to participate in a renewal of the long histories of Indigenous governance on these lands” (102). The fact that you’ve probably never heard of this camp—I certainly hadn’t—or that it only lasted for a short time, doesn’t matter. “The idea that the changes we are seeking will not come from one grand monolithic movement, but rather from small, diverse, and widespread attempts to live outside the dominant logics of our time” is the purpose of such activities, Fortier argues, citing the idea of the “undercommons” as described by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten in their 2013 book, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. The undercommons, Fortier writes, is different from the commons; the latter “is a refusal of the process of closure,” but the former “resists both enclosure and settlement” (104). According to Fortier, “the struggle for the undercommons means to destabilize our intellectual, affective, spiritual, and material commitments to the power relations of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism” (105). But along with the undercommons, Fortier cites Junot Díaz’s concept of “decolonial love” (106-07), which “bridges the mental, material, emotional, and spiritual through the practice of relationality and reciprocity.” Decolonial love, he continues, “is an invitation to shift and transform our affective and spiritual relationships on these territories. It is a pathway towards a different kind of commons” (107). But, he concludes, “for this strategy to be effective decolonization needs to be foundational to all of our radical dreams, desires, and political projects—from their start and even at their end” (108).

I’m not sure what to make of Fortier’s book. I wonder what tangible results the struggles for the undercommons actually achieve. I find it hard to imagine what a world without states might look like, or how we might get there: after all, the state has a long, long history, and failed states—Venezuela, Libya, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, or Syria—are hardly places where one would want to live. There’s no guarantee that, once the state has disappeared, gangsters wouldn’t loot the armouries and establish regimes that would make capitalist liberal democracies look pretty good by comparison. What I’m trying to say is that there’s a powerful element of utopianism in Fortier’s argument, as well as a belief in the perfectibility of human nature, and I find both of those somewhat naive. At the same time, I agree with the argument that settlers need to build relationships with Indigenous communities and accept their leadership. That’s one of the reasons I’m learning Cree, although I’m sure that Fortier would tell me that learning an Indigenous language is not enough. Still, Unsettling the Commons has given me a lot to think about, and Fortier’s bibliography is very useful. He also makes me want to give that book by Harney and Moten another try—my first attempt at reading it foundered in the details of their argument. Like much of what I’ve read so far towards my comprehensive examinations, Unsettling the Commons has raised new questions, rather than answering old ones, and perhaps that’s the best outcome I can hope for in this process.

Works Cited

Fortier, Craig. Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism. ARP Books, 2017.

11. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics

laclau and mouffe

This 1985 book was a big deal when I was an undergraduate: I read many essays and articles that made some kind of reference to it. Someday, I thought, I’m going to read that. But I never did. Then, last semester, I read a couple of  essays on socially engaged art practices that referred to the notion of antagonism in Laclau and Mouffe, one by Shannon Jackson and one by Claire Bishop, and so I decided that I would add Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to my comprehensive examination reading list. Besides, I was curious about the concept of hegemony. How did it work? Would it be possible, for example, to imagine a Canada where the hegemonic formation respected Indigenous rights and would never think of sending the RCMP to arrest people protecting their unceded land and water? Or a Canada where the long-term threat of climate change was more important than the short-term gain of selling fossil fuels? Or are such ideas merely utopian fantasies? 

A lot has happened in the more than 30 years since Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics was published, but it’s still considered to be an important book. In his introduction to a recent collection of Chantal Mouffe’s essays, for example, James Martin describes the book as a “slim yet ground-breaking volume” and a “major innovation in the theorisation of radical politics” (1). In their 2000 preface to the book’s second edition, Laclau and Mouffe suggest that most of what had happened since the book’s first appearance has closely followed the pattern they describe in it. “[T]hose issues which were central to our concerns at that moment have become ever more prominent in contemporary discussions,” they write (vii), and their discussion of the hegemonic formation of neo-conservatism in the book’s final chapter certainly does seem to explain much of our political life since the 1980s.

Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is a difficult book, but the preface to the second edition does help to summarize its argument. Laclau and Mouffe set out to deconstruct existing Marxist categories, and they describe their “post-Marxism” as “the process of reappropriation of an intellectual tradition, as well as the process of going beyond it” (ix). That deconstruction uses poststructualist theory to take apart the essentialisms and totalizations of Marxism. So, Laclau and Mouffe, drawing from Michel Foucault, argue that the social is a discursive space, and discourses dissolve the illusion of an immediate or non-mediated access to things (xi). From Jacques Derrida, they take the notion of undecidability, and from Jacques Lacan, the idea that one element can assume a “universal” structuring function within a given discursive field, as well as the importance of “identification” as a category (xi-xii). But their real starting point is Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. In a hegemonic relation, they write, “a certain particularity assumes the representation of a universality entirely incommensurable with it” (xiii). A hegemonic relation is therefore metonymic: a part claims to represent the whole. Such representations, though, are always reversible and never permanent; they are therefore political, depending on “internal frontiers within society” (xiii). That leads to the notion of antagonism. Society is constituted around the limits defined by antagonisms; they are social divisions that are inherent in society and in politics (xiv). Laclau and Mouffe reject the idea that rational people will come to a consensus about social or political issues. That consensus is impossible, because antagonisms—opposing ideas about what is important or true—define the terrain of the social and the political. The “sacralization of consensus,” they write, is a problem, because it means “abandoning any attempt at transforming the present hegemonic order” (xv)—and that kind of transformation is what they think needs to happen. Such a transformation, however, does not mean abandoning the values espoused by liberal democracy. “In our view, the problem with ‘actually existing’ liberal democracies is not with their constitutive values crystallized in the principles of liberty and equality for all,” Laclau and Mouffe write, “but with the system of power which redefines and limits the operation of those values” (xv). That is the reason their project of “‘radical and plural democracy’” was conceived as a way of extending “the democratic struggles for equality and liberty to a wider range of social relations” (xv-xvi).

For Laclau and Mouffe, there are alternatives to “the so-called ‘globalized world,’” and thinking about that world through the category of hegemony

can help us to understand that the present conjuncture, far from being the only natural or possible societal order, is the expression of a certain configuration of power relations. It is the result of hegemonic moves on the part of specific social forces which have been able to implement a profound transformation in the relations between capitalist corporations and the nation-states. This hegemony can be challenged. (xvi-xvii)

Challenging that hegemony and elaborating a credible alternative to it are the jobs of the Left, they continue, not managing that hegemony more humanely. Those tasks would require “drawing new political frontiers and acknowledging that there cannot be a radical politics without the definition of an adversary,” they continue. In other words, those tasks would require “the acceptance of the ineradicability of antagonism” (xvii). “Conflict and division, in our view, are neither disturbances that unfortunately cannot be eliminated nor empirical impediments that cannot render impossible the full realization of a harmony that we cannot attain because we will never be able to leave our particularities completely aside in order to act in accordance with our rational self,” they write (xvii). Indeed, “without conflict and division, a pluralist democratic politics would be impossible,” because the moment conflicts or antagonisms were eliminated, democracy itself would disintegrate (xviii). “[A]ny form of consensus is the result of a hegemonic articulation,” they continue, and such an articulation “always has an ‘outside’ that impedes its full realization” (xviii). There is always resistance to any consensus, in other words, because something, or someone, is left outside of it. Moreover, Laclau and Mouffe believe that “a chain of equivalence among the various democratic struggles against different forms of subordination” needs to be created; that is, “struggles against sexism, racism, sexual discrimination, and in the defence of the environment need to be articulated with those of the workers in a new left-wing hegemonic project” (xviii). That’s easier said than done, of course, because of the antagonisms that cut through society—antagonisms or divisions between, for example, Indigenous people whose land is threatened by pipelines, and steel workers whose livelihoods depend on the construction of those pipelines. (I might not be using the word “antagonism” in a technically correct way, according to this book’s argument, but I hope I am.)

The first two chapters of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy set out how the version of hegemony that Laclau and Mouffe present is different from past Marxist theory. In the first chapter, the authors take classical Marxism to task for its essentialism and its belief in a historical teleology, among other things. In the second, they show how their definition of hegemony is different from Gramsci’s. At the beginning of the third chapter, they write that those two earlier chapters have “provided us with something more and something less than a precise discursive location from which to embark” (79). Much of the third chapter attempts to define the key terms in their argument: articulation, moment, discursive formation, discourse, and society. For example, they argue that “society” is not a self-defined totality, nor a valid object of discourse (97), because it is only partially fixed (or, I think, coherent and capable of definition): “If the social does not manage to fix itself in the intelligible and instituted forms of a society, the social only exists . . . as an effort to construct that impossible object” (98). That’s not a surprise, because “[a]ny discourse is constituted as an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity, to arrest the flow of differences, to construct a centre,” and the word “society” is part of discourse, rather than something outside of discourse (98). “[T]he privileged discursive points of this partial fixation,” they continue, are “nodal points”—another key term in their argument:

The practice of articulation, therefore, consists in the construction of nodal points which partially fix meaning; and the partial character of this fixation proceeds from the openness of the social, a result, in its turn, of the constant overflowing of every discourse by the infinitude in the field of discursivity. (100)

Yes, you need to have read some poststructuralist theory to follow this argument, but it’s not impossible to understand: everything—both society and the individual subject—is “penetrated by the same ambiguous, incomplete and polysemical character which overdetermination assigns to every discursive identity” (107-08). However, there are limits to difference: those limits are antagonisms (108). An antagonism is not a contradiction (110), nor is it an opposition (110-11). Rather, in an antagonism, “the presence of the ‘Other’ prevents me from being totally myself,” a relation that arises from the impossibility of the constitution of full totalities (111). In other words, “Insofar as there is antagonism, I cannot be a full presence for myself” (111); “antagonism constitutes the limits of every objectivity”—that is, every opposition—“which is revealed as partial and precarious objectification” (111). This is complicated stuff, and the example Laclau and Mouffe provide doesn’t clarify things much: “it is because a peasant cannot be a peasant that an antagonism exists with the landowner expelling him from his land,” they write (111). I’m not sure I understand that idea: doesn’t the antagonism between peasant and landowner exist prior to the landowner’s decision to expel the peasant from the land? In practice, however, it seems that “antagonism,” as Laclau and Mouffe use the term, is a lot closer to its dictionary definition.

All of these definitions are, our authors contend, the necessary theoretical elements “to determine the specificity of the concept of hegemony” (120). “It is because hegemony supposes the incomplete and open character of the social,” they write, “that it can take place only in a field dominated by articulating practices” (120). A hegemonic articulation “should take place through a confrontation with antagonistic articulatory practices”—in other words, “hegemony should emerge in a field criss-crossed by antagonisms,” although not every antagonism suggests or produces hegemony (122). “Thus, the two conditions of a hegemonic articulation are the presence of antagonistic forces and the instability of the frontiers which separate them,” Laclau and Mouffe continue. “Only the presence of a vast area of floating elements and the possibility of their articulation to opposite camps—which implies a constant redefinition of the latter—is what constitutes the terrain permitting us to define a practice as hegemonic,” they write. “Without equivalence and without frontiers, it is impossible to speak strictly of hegemony” (122). However, the proliferation of political spaces, and the complexity and difficulty of their articulation, are both central characteristics of advanced capitalist social formations, in which there is no single political space, but rather multiple political spaces, and therefore a plurality of democratic struggles (123-24). “This is why the hegemonic form of politics only becomes dominant at the beginning of modern times, when the reproduction of the different social areas takes place in permanently changing conditions which constantly require the construction of new systems of differences,” Laclau and Mouffe contend (125). Therefore, “the area of articulatory practices is immensely broadened,” and “every social identity becomes the meeting point for a multiplicity of articulatory practices, many of them antagonistic” (125). When I read that sentence, I thought about banks: everyone complains about service fees and the way the big banks treat their employees, but at the same time, we all have retirement funds invested in them, and so we all have a stake in their profitability—even if that profitability depends on the service fees and exploitation. Maybe I’m completely off base, but our social identities—or at least, my social identity—is a meeting point for those two (possibly antagonistic) articulations: my dislike of the banks and my need for their continuing profitability.

Laclau and Mouffe continue describing and defining hegemony and hegemonic formations for several more pages, but because their argument is abstract, it is difficult to grasp. It is only in the last chapter, where they begin to provide examples, that I started to feel that I knew what was going on. (And, as I review my notes from the third chapter, I’m starting to think I understand their argument—if I had time, I would reread that chapter, but I have too many other books to read to indulge in such repetition.) At the beginning of the last chapter, Laclau and Mouffe argue that we need to accept “the plurality and indeterminacy of the social” in order to create “a new political imaginary, radically libertarian and infinitely more ambitious in its objectives than that of the classic left” (136). “[P]olitics is a practice of creation, reproduction and transformation of social relations,” they continue, and it cannot “be located at a determinate level of the social, as the problem of the political is the problem of the institution of the social, that is, of the definition and articulation of social relations in a field criss-crossed with antagonisms” (137). The central problem, therefore, is identifying “the discursive conditions for the emergence of a collective action, directed towards struggling against inequalities and challenging relations of subordination,” as well as identifying “the conditions in which a relation of subordination becomes a relation of oppression, and thereby constitutes itself into the site of an antagonism” (137). A relation of oppression, they continue, requires “the presence of a discursive ‘exterior’ from which the discourse of subordination can be interrupted” (138)—the way that the words serf or slave “do not designate in themselves antagonistic positions: it is only in the terms of a different discursive formation, such as ‘the rights inherent to every human being,’ that the differential positivity of these categories can be subverted and the subordination constructed as oppression” (138). I’m not sure that is true, particularly in the case of enslaved Africans in the New World: even prior to the French Revolution, which Laclau and Mouffe describe as the key moment in the invention of democratic culture (139), wouldn’t enslaved Africans have understood their enslavement as oppression? “Our thesis is that it is only from the moment when the democratic discourse becomes available to articulate the different forms of resistance to subordination that the conditions will exist to make possible the struggle against different types of inequality,” they write (138), a statement that ignores the revolts of the Diggers, to take one example, or any other struggle which took place prior to the 18th century.

It wasn’t until Laclau and Mouffe began to discuss the hegemonic formation that was constructed after the Second World War that I really started to understand their argument. That hegemonic formation involved a transition to “an intensive regime of accumulation” in which “capitalist relations of production” spread “to the whole set of social relations,” which were subordinated “to the logic of production for profit” through Fordism, the assembly line, and the transformation of society “into a vast market in which new ‘needs’ were ceaselessly created, and in which more and more of the products of human labour were turned into social commodities” (144). “Today,” they continue, “it is not only as a seller of labour-power that the individual is subordinated to capital, but also through his or her incorporation into a multitude of other social relations: culture, free time, illness, education, sex and even death. There is practically no domain of individual or collective life which escapes capitalist relations” (144-45). As a result, numerous new struggles have emerged, expressing resistance against these new forms of subordination (145). At the same time, there were growing levels of bureaucratization, imposing still other forms of subordination, and therefore other struggles emerged against bureaucratic forms of State power (146). “One cannot understand the present expansion of the field of social conflictuality and the consequent emergence of new political subjects,” Laclau and Mouffe argue,

without situating both in the context of the commodification and bureaucratization of social relations on the one hand, and the reformulation of the liberal-democratic ideology—resulting from the expansion of struggles for equality—on the other. For this reason, we have proposed that this proliferation of antagonisms and calling into question of relations of subordination should be considered as a moment of deepening of the democratic revolution. This has also been stimulated by the third important aspect in the mutation of social relations which has characterized the hegemonic formation of the post-war period: namely, the new cultural forms linked to the expansion of the means of mass communication. These were to make possible a new mass culture which would profoundly shake traditional identities. Once again, the effects here are ambiguous, as along with the undeniable effects of massification and uniformization, this media-based culture also contains powerful elements for the subversion of inequalities: the dominant discourses in consumer society present it as social progress and the advance of democracy, to the extent that it allows the vast majority of the population access to an ever-increasing range of goods. (147)

“Interpellated as equals in their capacity as consumers, ever more numerous groups are impelled to reject the real inequalities that continue to exist,” they continue (147-48), resulting in a “‘democratic consumer culture’ which stimulates the emergence of new struggles and the rejection of old forms of subordination (148). At the same time, “‘new antagonisms’” emerge, which “are the expression of forms of resistance to the commodification, bureaucratization and increasing homogenization of social life,” which explains why these new antagonisms “should frequently manifest themselves through a proliferation of particularisms, and crystallize into a demand for autonomy itself” (148). 

That demand for autonomy was part of “the two great themes of the democratic imaginary—equality and liberty” (148). As liberty became more central after the Second World War, it tended to become a discourse of the Right, not the Left. In other words, an antagonism can crystallize in any political orientation: “it always consists in the construction of a social identity—of an overdetermined subject position—on the basis of the equivalence between a set of elements or values which expel or externalize those others to which they are opposed” (148-49). New antagonisms emerge, along with new political subjects, linked to the expansion and generalization of the democratic revolution after the war, and yet those new struggles are not necessarily progressive (152). “All struggles,” Laclau and Mouffe write, 

left to themselves, have a partial character, and can be articulated to very different discourses. It is this articulation which gives them their character, not the place from which they come. There is therefore no subject—nor, further, any “necessity”—which is absolutely radical and irrecuperable by the dominant social order, and which constitutes an absolutely guaranteed point of departure for a total transformation. (153)

The novelty of neo-conservatism in the 1980s, for example, “lies in its successful articulation to neo-liberal discourse of a series of democratic resistances to the transformation of social relations,” including the resistance to the bureaucratic character of the new forms of State organization that arose after the war (153). “That the chains of equivalence which each hegemonic articulation constitutes can be of greatly differing natures is patently demonstrated by this neo-conservative discourse: the antagonisms constituted around bureaucratization are articulated in the defence of the traditional inequalities of sex and race” (153-54). This also explains the shifts in voting patterns—between left-wing and right-wing political parties—that often befuddle political observers. The new right in the 1980s constructed “a new historic bloc in which a plurality of economic, social and cultural aspects are articulated” (154), and even if the result was incoherent, it has lasted some 40 years. “What the neo-conservative or neo-liberal ‘new right’ calls into question is the type of articulation which has led democratic liberalism to justify the intervention of the State in the struggle against inequalities, and the installation of the Welfare State,” Laclau and Mouffe argue. It has done that by transforming the definition of liberty into a traditional, Lockean notion of liberty as “non-interference with the right of unlimited appropriation and with the mechanisms of the capitalist market economy” (156)—not to mention, in the United States, the liberty to obtain as many firearms as one can afford. At the same time, neo-liberalism discredits “every ‘positive’ conception of liberty as being potentially totalitarian” (156), to the point that the word “liberal” has become totally discredited in political discourse in some countries. New chains of equivalence are therefore created by the neo-liberal hegemony: equality=identity=totalitarianism, and difference=inequality=liberty. Neo-liberals attack the one, and affirm the other (158). These chains of equivalence help to create the new hegemonic formation of neo-conservatism or neo-liberalism: “It seeks a profound transformation of the terms of political discourse and the creation of a new ‘definition of reality,’ which under the cover of the defence of ‘individual liberty’ would legitimate inequalities and restore the hierarchical relations which the struggles of previous decades had destroyed” (159). “A series of subject positions which were accepted as legitimate differences in the hegemonic formation corresponding to the Welfare State are expelled from the field of social positivity and construed as negativity,” they continue (160). The only way for the Left to create an alternative, Laclau and Mouffe argue, would be to construct a different system of equivalents, establishing social division on a new basis, by “expanding the chains of equivalents between the different struggles against oppression” (160). “The task of the left therefore cannot be to renounce liberal-democratic ideology,” they write, “but on the contrary, to deepen it and expand it in the direction of a radical and plural democracy” (160). This is possible because “the meaning of liberal discourse on individual rights is not definitively fixed; and just as this unfixity permits their articulation with elements of conservative discourse, it also permits different forms of articulation and redefinition which accentuate the democratic movement” (160). All of this helps to explain, at a theoretical level, the failures of New Labour in the U.K., or of Clinton or Obama in the United States (or, for that matter, Trudeau in Canada): none of them were able to, or interested in, expanding liberal-democratic ideology in the direction of a radical and plural democracy, or creating systems of equivalents different from those of neo-liberalism. Indeed, all of those governments simply accepted those systems of equivalents. 

So, what is to be done? For Laclau and Mouffe, traditional, oppositional (negative, in their formulation) left-wing politics is not sufficient to create a hegemony: “A situation of hegemony would be one in which the management of the positivity of the social and the articulation of the diverse democratic demands had achieved a maximum integration,” they write (173). Therefore, a radical democratic alternative for the Left “must base itself upon the search for a point of equilibrium between a maximum advance for the democratic revolution in a broad range of spheres, and the capacity for the hegemonic direction and positive reconstruction of these spheres on the part of subordinated groups” (173). Hegemonic positions begin with negativity, with opposition, but they are only consolidated by constituting the positivity of the social. Those two contradictory moments are both required. It is important to avoid utopianism or apoliticism—to avoid ignoring structural limits, on the one hand, or rejecting politics because of the limited character of the changes which are possible within it (174). But at the same time, it is important to avoid limiting the political to positivity alone—to the changes that can be made at present—and rejecting “every charge of negativity which goes beyond them” (174). Some aspect of the utopian impulse needs to remain, because “without ‘utopia,’ without the possibility of negating an order beyond the point that we are able to threaten it, there is no possibility at all of the constitution of a radical imaginary—whether democratic or any other type,” Laclau and Mouffe argue. “The presence of this imaginary as a set of symbolic meanings which totalize as negativity a certain social order is absolutely essential for the constitution of all left-wing thought” (174). In other words, “Every radical democratic politics should avoid the two extremes represented by the totalitarian myth of the Ideal City, and the positivist pragmatism of reformists without a project” (174).

So, is it possible to imagine a Canada where the rights of Indigenous nations are respected, or where a short-term economic reliance on fossil fuels is rejected? Could either hegemony be constructed, and if so, how? I’m still not sure; perhaps either idea is simply too utopian to realize now. Nevertheless, I find the ideas in the last chapter of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to be very powerful. Take this response to traditional Marxism, for example: 

The discourse of radical democracy is no longer the discourse of the universal: the epistemological niche from which “universal” classes and subjects spoke has been eradicated, and it has been replaced by a polyphony of voices, each of which constructs its own irreducible discursive identity. This point is decisive: there is no radical and plural democracy without renouncing the discourse of the universal and its implicit assumption of a privileged point of access to “the truth,” which can be reached only by a limited number of subjects. In political terms this means that just as there are no surfaces which are privileged a priori for the emergence of antagonisms, nor are there discursive regions which the programme of a radical democracy should exclude a priori as possible spheres of struggle. Juridical institutions, the educational system, labour relations, the discourses of the resistance of marginal populations construct original and irreducible forms of social protest, and thereby contribute to all the discursive complexity and richness on which the programme of a radical democracy should be founded. (175-76)

So who knows? Perhaps the Unist’ot’en land defenders will become a key point in the articulation of a hegemonic formation of radical democracy in this country. We can hope so—even though, of course, the people defending their land in northern British Columbia would likely reject the label “Canadian,” and rightly so: they have their own nation. In any case, I am happy that I read—finally—Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: the complex articulation of hegemony Laclau and Mouffe put forward is fascinating and, potentially, helpful for my own research. In fact, I’m interested in reading the later works of both authors, in which they discuss the rise of populist movements in Europe and elsewhere. That investigation, however, will have to wait. I have other things to read first.

Works Cited

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Democratic Politics, 2nd edition, Verso, 2014.

Martin, James. “Introduction: Democracy and Conflict in the Work of Chantal Mouffe.” Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony, Radical Democracy, and the Political, Routledge, 2013, pp. 1-11.

10. Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work

coles doing documentary work

I’ve had Robert Coles’s Doing Documentary Work on my bookshelf for quite some time. I bought it because of the title, but I’d never made time to read it. I was curious, though, about why Coles, a child psychiatrist, became the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, how he helped to establish the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke University, and why he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Children of Crisis series. Why not put it on my reading list? I thought. That’s how I’ll answer those questions—and maybe it’ll be of some use. And so that’s what I did.

Coles begins by discussing James Agee’s aesthetic, moral, and intellectual struggle as he tried to report on what he had witnessed in central Alabama while writing his 1941 book about tenant farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. That struggle, Coles reports, can be seen in Agee’s anger, towards himself, his audience, and his editors and publishers. Agee feels inadequate to the task he is facing; he senses “that any manuscript he will complete and send to a publisher won’t convey so very much that matters about the lives of the people he has met,” and he worries that his readers won’t realize that’s the case (3). That anxiety and struggle appear in the text of Agee’s book in attacks on himself and his audience. For Coles, Agee’s story is intended “to indicate . . . some of the occupational hazards, as it were, of so-called documentary work. The intense self-scrutiny Agee attempts is, one hopes, an aspect of all writing, all research” (4). “Each of us brings, finally, a particular life to the others who are being observed in documentary work,” he continues, “and so to some degree, each of us will engage with those others differently, carrying back from such engagement our own version of them” (5). That’s because, according to Coles, documentary work is necessarily both subjective and objective: it attempts to tell the truth, but each person engaged in that work will tell the truth differently, according to their own subjectivity. Documentary work, therefore, is not neutral or impartial: “the search for objectivity [is] waylaid by a stubborn subjectivity” (5). 

For Coles, documentary work raises methodological, psychological or personal, and moral issues—primarily because he defines documentary work as research into the lives of people who are different from oneself—different in terms of class position, race, or origin. No doubt Coles thinks that way because of his experience in the 1950s and 1960s, researching the effects of desegregation on African-American children in the South and writing about the Freedom Riders. Coles does acknowledge that not all research focuses on that kind of difference, but his primary examples—Agee, George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, and Dorothea Lange’s photographs—are of documentary work that tries to tell the stories of people who are very different from the researcher. 

Coles sets out to explore a tremendous number of questions about documentary work—about telling stories, in a variety of media, about the lives of other people:

What kind of work are we doing, and to what purpose? How are we to proceed—through which intermediaries in pursuit of which men, women, children, living in what neighborhoods? How does our work compare with that of others who work for newspapers, who do more traditional social science (survey research, for instance), or who do a kind of social history that does not entail interviews with ordinary folk? When does enough turn out to be enough—when, that is, do we leave reasonably satisfied, and if so, with what messages given to the people with whom we have worked? What is our responsibility to such people, and how ought it be acknowledged? What about ourselves—when does honorable inquiry turn into an exercise in manipulative self-interest, even (that word of words!) “exploitation”? Who is to make such judgments, calling upon what criteria? As for ourselves, in the lonely corners of whose minds a certain vague yet ever so pressing moral awareness can restively lurk, ready in the most unexpected moments to pounce on us, bear down on our sense of who we are and what we’ve become—what ought we to consider appropriate or inappropriate in this kind of relatively idiosyncratic endeavor, of a kind not usually regulated by the rules of departmental disciplines, by textbooks that spell out steps and routines and procedures and the theories that justify them?

Speaking of theory—how to think of “documentary studies” in the abstract, as well as in the implementation of the concrete? Speaking, too, of the personal and ethical, as so many of the above questions do—how to talk directly, candidly (using what kind of language), about the psychological hazards of such work, and too, the ethical challenges that appear, it sometimes seems, from out of nowhere? Moreover, what to make of one’s interventions, as a writer, as an editor of tapes or notes, as the person who picks and chooses words, crops and cuts photographs, splices constantly the tapes of a documentary film? When do selection and arrangement and a response to narrative need, in the form of one’s comments and asides, become so decisive that one story (“raw interview material” or “unedited footage” or photographic film that hasn’t been sorted or sequenced) has turned into quite another? What of pictures cropped (with a possible attendant shift in emphasis, focus, not to mention the substance of a scene)? What of films that move back and forth across time and space while presenting an apparent narrative and chronological continuity? When does fact veer toward fiction—and how are those two words to be understood with respect to one another: as polarities, as contraries, or as kin, working a parallel, often contiguous territory, and borrowing from one another now and then? (15-16)

Anyone could’ve told Coles that he has too many research questions, but really, all of those questions are different ways of asking just three questions: What is documentary work? How can documentary work be conducted in an ethical way? And what is the balance between objectivity and subjectivity in documentary work?

Coles explores the first question by distinguishing documentary work from similar activities—history, journalism, anthropology, and sociology—and by thinking through the work of Agee and Orwell, which “helps clarify our thinking about the various ways observers can respond to what they have seen and heard and come to believe” (25). Both writers display similar polarities and tensions, according to Coles, including “the demands of reality against those of art,” “the demands of objectivity against those of objectivity,” and “a voice seeking to be contemplative, considered, as against one aiming for passionate persuasion, or advocacy, or denunciation” (27-28). The issue—in Agee and Orwell, and in his own work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—is “location—how a particular writer or researcher decides to commit himself or herself with respect to those others being studied, watched, heard, made the subject of a writing initiative,” as well as also how that researcher will be “touched or affected” by the people he or she is learning about (32-33). Coles finishes by considering the issue of location in the poetry of William Carlos Williams (whom he knew quite well)—the way that Williams “knew in his bones that location made a huge difference,” particularly the location of the person engaged in the project (47). If you’re surprised to hear Williams’s poetry—particularly his long poem Paterson—described as documentary work, don’t be: Coles sees the documentary impulse in a variety of forms and media.

Next, Coles looks at the moral and psychological tensions that affect the person doing documentary research, returning to Agee as an example. But that discussion quickly shifts to questions about one’s relationship with one’s research participants. Coles thinks about his work in New Orleans in the 1960s, and realizes that to some of his participants, he came across as “a self-absorbed traveling salesman, peddling my documentary (my careerist) wares,” which he was asking his participants to purchase through their investment of time and energy in his project (65-66). He came to understand how a documentary writer or photographer or filmmaker can come to feel accused—by himself or herself—and how that sense of guilt or shame can lead to the anger one sees in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Road to Wigan Pier. Documentarians need to ask questions about their responsibilities to their research participants:

How ought we regard ourselves, with what degree of scrutiny of our motives and our manner, of why we go where go do, and how we behave while there? Afterwards, what, if anything, ought we keep in mind? Should we keep in touch with those whom we have enlisted as informants, as participants in our project? Put differently, what kind of moral and psychological accountability should we demand of ourselves, we who lay claim to social idealism, or to a documentary tradition that will somehow (we hope) work toward a social good—expose injustice, shed light on human suffering, or contribute to a growing body of knowledge stored in libraries, in museums, in film studios? (74)

“More bluntly,” he continues,

what, if anything, do we owe those we have “studied,” whose lives we have gone to document? Should we, for instance, send back the writing, the photography, the film once it is completed? If so, at what stage of that work’s development: as it is being assembled, as it is being edited, before it is published or exhibited or shown on television or in a movie house, or well afterwards, or indeed never? Should we pay our informants for all the time and effort put into making a film or working with a photographer or an interviewer? Should we share our royalties, our artistic fees, our monetary rewards or prizes with the subjects of our documentary project, or share them with a group or fund whose purpose it is to address the particular “problem” we have presented?. . . Is it “exploitative” to do documentary work, to arrive on a given scene, ask for people’s cooperation, time, energy, and knowledge, do one’s “study” or “project,” and soon enough, leave, thank yous presumably extended? How can we do such work honorably, so that those observed get more closely, explicitly connected with it? Should “informants” be publicly acknowledged if they so desire? Should we invite them to those exhibitions or film presentations that commemorate the completion of documentary work? How do we communicate to others, called “potential subjects,” our artistic or social or political purposes, let them know what we have in mind, what we hope to do, and why it might be necessary to go to such lengths? (75-76)

These questions are much the same as the ones raised in the course on socially engaged art practices that I took last semester: how do we ensure that our behaviour is ethical, that everyone involved gets something out of the research project? The principle of mutual benefit can guide our answers to those questions. Coles doesn’t attempt to answer them, but he does suggest that researchers need to make a genuine effort to connect with their participants, and to make sure they are taking time to be with them, that they are giving as well as taking (77). It’s an attitude, for Coles, and a deliberate effort at avoiding being avaricious or greedy about the lives and the stories of the people one is studying (81).

Next, Coles turns to the question of objectivity versus subjectivity. He argues that all documentary work is made “by a particular mind whose capacities, interests, values, conjectures, suppositions and presuppositions, whose memories, and, not least, whose talents will come to bear directly or indirectly on what is, finally . . . presented to the world” (87). “Events are filtered through a person’s awareness,” he continues, and that awareness is influenced by experience, aspirations, frustrations, even moods (88). The subjectivity of documentary work leads Coles to the distinction his students want to make between fact and fiction, true and false, real and imaginary. Such oppositions, he argues, don’t do justice to the concept of documentary work. Fictional devices—the demands of storytelling—“inform the construction of nonfiction,” just as fiction often draws upon real life (90):

A documentarian’s report will be strengthened by what has been witnessed, but will be fueled, surely, by what those observations come to mean in his or her head: we absorb sights and sounds, and they become our experience, unique to us, in that we, their recipients, are unique. What we offer others in the way of our documentary reports, then, is our mix of what we have observed and experienced, as we have assembled it, that assembly having to do . . . with our imaginative capability, our gifts as writers, as editors, as storytellers, as artists. (91)

“[T]he doer of documentary work,” Coles writes, “is out there in this world of five billion people, free (at least by the nature of his or her chosen manner of approach to people, places, events) to buckle down, to try to find a congenial, even inspiring take on things” (126). This emphasis on subjectivity allows Coles to include Paterson and Hart Crane’s long poem The Bridge in his definition of documentary work. “[D]oing documentary work,” Coles concludes, “is a journey . . . a passage cross boundaries . . . that can become a quest, even a pilgrimage, a movement toward the sacred truth enshrined not only on tablets of stone, but in the living hearts of those others whom we can hear, see, and get to understand” (145). By engaging in this process, he continues, “we hope to be confirmed in our own humanity” (145).

Those words confirm what one might have suspected all along—that Coles is a devout humanist—and his final chapter, in which he discusses a wide range of documentarians and documentary practices he likes, display that humanism. He is interested in the work of Dorothea Lange and her husband, Paul Taylor, and he argues that Lange was an artist despite her “interest in polemical statement” (177)—a statement that reveals Coles’s own aesthetics. He also likes the writing and/or photography of John Baskin, Wright Morris, Anthony Walton, Kathleen Norris, Thomas Roma, Robert Frank, Reynolds Price, and Ruth Bottigheimer, and the filmmaking of Frederick Wiseman. All of these documentarians are storytellers, he argues: “through selection, emphasis, and the magic of narrative art, the reader or viewer gets convincingly close to a scene, a subject matter, and sees the documentary as one of many possible takes, not the story, but a story” (250). “The call of documentary work,” he concludes, “is an aspect of the call of stories, of our wish to learn about one another through observation of one another,” and the resulting stories present us with an opportunity “to wonder how we are doing as we try to affirm ourselves by reaching toward others, helping to make a difference in a neighborhood, a nation” (251-52).

So, what to make of Coles’s book? On the one hand, his definition of documentary work isn’t useful for me at all, because my project doesn’t focus on studying or researching or writing about the lives of other people. But, on the other hand, I will find myself working with other people, relying on them, and perhaps (probably?) writing about our encounters, as I did during my walk to Wood Mountain this past summer. Those people will inevitably become research participants, since I couldn’t complete the walk I am planning without their help. The questions he asks about relating to research participants are therefore worth asking myself as I move forward with my research. Some might find Coles’s humanism hopelessly outmoded, or his list of successful documentary projects obvious (I can hear someone snorting, “Robert Frank? Really?”) or old-fashioned (where is post-conceptual photography or autoethnography in his version of documentary work? where is the postmodern concern with the crisis of representation?). I did find myself curious about the mix of photography and text in Wright Morris’s The Inhabitants—curious enough that I’ve ordered a copy (since it’s not in the library here). In all of this reading, I’m trying to take what I find useful, and leave the rest behind, and I do find some of Coles’s book useful: his concern with ethics, his contention that documentary work is inevitably subjective. Besides, after reading his book, I understand how a child psychiatrist became a Pulitzer Prize-winning documentarian.

Work Cited

Coles, Robert. Doing Documentary Work. Oxford UP, 1997.

9. bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness”

hooks yearning

Not everything that’s on my reading list is a 600-page doorstopper. bell hooks’s essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” is only a few pages long. To be honest, I’m not sure how this essay ended up on my reading list. I ran across a reference to it somewhere, I think, and I was impressed. In any case, I had time this afternoon to read something short, and so I chose this essay.

hooks begins by asking questions about “the realities of choice and location”:

Within complex and ever shifting realms of power relations, do we position ourselves on the side of colonizing mentality? Or do we continue to stand in political resistance with the oppressed, ready to offer our ways of seeing and theorizing, of making culture, towards that revolutionary effort which seeks to create space where there is unlimited access to the pleasure and power of knowing, where transformation is possible? (145)

That choice is crucial, because it determines “our capacity to envision new alternative, oppositional aesthetic acts” and “informs the way we speak about these issues, the language we choose” (145). Place is both literal and metaphorical for hooks: it is “not just who I am in the present but where I am coming from, the multiple voices within me,” a confrontation with “silence, inarticulateness,” and the words that emerge from suffering (146). Identifying “the location from which I come to voice—the space of my theorizing” is, she continues, a “personal struggle” (146).

For hooks, language is a “place of struggle” (146). “Often when the radical voice speaks about domination we are speaking to those who dominate,” she writes. “Their presence changes the nature and direction of our words” (146). Is it possible to speak in a different way? “Dare I speak to the oppressed and oppressor in the same voice?” she asks. “Dare I speak to you in a language that will move beyond the boundaries of domination—a language that will not bind you, fence you in, or hold you?” (146). One of the questions these words raise—a question that is answered later in the essay—is who “you” is in these questions. She appears to be addressing the oppressor here, although she wants to speak in a language that moves beyond the binaries or boundaries of oppression. One way to do that, she writes, would be to use “black vernacular speech,” something she wants to do in this essay: “Private speech in public discourse, intimate intervention, making another text, a space that enables me to recover all that I am in language,” she writes. But that recourse to the vernacular seems impossible. As a result, she continues, “I find so many gaps, absences in this written text. To cite them at least is to let the reader know something has been missed, or remains there hinted at by words—there in the deep structure” (147). 

hooks’s relationship with her community of origin and her family is ambivalent. Her home community and her family were places of silencing and censorship (147-48), and so she needed to leave them, “to move beyond boundaries,” and “yet I needed also to return there” (148). “Indeed,” she continues,

the very meaning of “home” changes with experience of decolonization, of radicalization. At times, home is nowhere. At times, one knows only extreme estrangement and alienation. Then home is no longer just one place. It is locations. Home is that place which enables and promotes varied and everchanging perspectives, a place where one discovers new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference. (148)

This “dispersal and fragmentation” must be both confronted and accepted in order to construct a new world “that reveals more fully where we are, who we can become” (148). 

Part of the reason that home is so complex for hooks is her experience of privilege—her entry into the university, which she describes as a place of privilege. People without privilege who enter such places “must create spaces within that culture of domination if we are to survive whole, our souls intact. Our very presence there is a disruption” (148). There is constant pressure to silence or undermine the voices of people like her within places of privilege, like universities. “Mostly, of course, we are not there,” she writes—not in those places of privilege:

We never “arrive” or “can’t stay.” Back in those spaces where we come from, we kill ourselves in despair, drowning in nihilism, caught in poverty, in addiction, in every postmodern mode of dying that can be named. Yet when we few remain in that “other” space, we are often too isolated, too alone. We die there, too. Those of us who live, who “make it,” passionately holding on to aspects of that “downhome” life we do not intend to lose while simultaneously seeking new knowledge and experience, invent spaces of radical openness. Without such spaces, we would not survive. (148-49)

Such a space of “radical openness,” hooks continues, “is a margin—a profound edge” (149). But marginality is more than just a site of deprivation; it’s the site of “radical possibility, a space of resistance,” “a central location for the production of a counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives” (149). Therefore, this marginality isn’t something one would wish to surrender or lose as part of moving into the centre; rather, it’s “a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers to one the possibility of a radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds” (150). This is what interests hooks: “what it means to struggle to maintain that marginality even as one works, produces, lives, if you will, at the center” (150). This margin is different from “that concrete space in the margins” she left behind when she entered the centre (150). Nevertheless, she writes, “I kept alive in my heart ways of knowing reality which affirm continuously not only the primacy of resistance but the necessity of a resistnce that is sustained by remembrance of the past, which includes recollections of broken tongues giving us ways to speak that decolonize our minds, our very beings” (150). It’s not necessary to surrender one’s self to learn from places of domination, such as universities; one needs to maintain “that radical perspective shaped and formed by marginality” (150)—both the “concrete” marginality of her home community, I think, and the “profound edge” she finds inside places of privilege.

“Understanding marginality as position and place of resistance is crucial for oppressed, exploited, colonized people,” hooks writes:

If we only view the margin as sign marking the despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way the very ground of our being. It is there in that space of collective despair that one’s creativity, one’s imagination is at risk, there that one’s mind is fully colonized, there that the freedom one longs for [is] lost. (150-51)

The margin, she continues, is both a site of repression and a site of resistance, but it is typically only spoken about as repression, as deprivation. “We are more silent when it comes to speaking of the margin as site of resistance,” she argues. “We are more often silenced when it comes to speaking of the margin as site of resistance” (151).

Who silences those who speak of the margin as site of resistance? Scholars within places of privilege, it seems—“especially those who name themselves radical critical thinkers, feminist thinkers,” because they “now fully participate in the construction of a discourse about the ‘Other’” (151). This paragraph is difficult, the words slippery, but it is central to her argument:

I was made “Other” there in that space with them. In that space in the margins, that lived-in segregated world of my past and present. They did not meet me there in that space. They met me at the center. They greeted me as colonizers. I am waiting to learn from them the path of their resistance, of how it came to be that they were able to surrender the power to act as colonizers. I am waiting for them to bear witness, to give testimony. . . . I am waiting for them to stop talking about the “Other,” to stop even describing how important it is to be able to speak about difference. . . . Often this speech about the “Other” is also a mask, an oppressive talk hiding gaps, absences, that space where our words would be if we were speaking, if there were silence, if we were there. This “we” is that “us” in the margins, that “we” who inhabit marginal space that is not the site of domination but a place of resistance. Enter that space. Often this speech about the “Other” annihilates, erases. (151)

What hooks appears to be calling for, here, is twofold. First, these scholars and thinkers need to speak about their own experience—“how it came to be that they were able to surrender the power to act as colonizers”—and by doing that, by ceasing to speak about the “Other” but rather to engage in a dialogue with the “Other,” they will actually be performing the decolonization they pretend to speak about. Second, they need to listen, to create space and silence for the “Other” to speak. The command, “Enter that space”—the space of marginality—is directed at those scholars and thinkers: by decolonizing themselves through silent listening, they will enter that space and stand alongside the “Other” who is waiting for them there. “This is an intervention,” hooks writes:

A message from that space in the margin that is a site of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves, where we move in solidarity to erase the category colonized/colonizer. Marginality as site of resistance. Enter that space. Let us meet there. Enter that space. We greet you as liberators. (152)

That last statement is ambiguous: who is liberating whom? I think it is those who are already within the space of marginality who are liberating whose who are entering that space for the first time, but hooks’s syntax could have the opposite meaning as well. 

hooks’s concluding paragraph describes her location in the margin, a marginality she has chosen as a site of resistance, as a “location of radical openness and possibility” where “resistance is continually formed in that segregated culture of opposition that is our critical response to domination”:

We come to this space through suffering and pain, through struggle. We know struggle to be that which pleasures, delights, and fulfills desire. We are transformed, individually, collectively, as we make radical creative space which affirms and sustains our subjectivity, which gives us a new location from which to articulate our sense of the world. (153)

That space seems to be available not only to those who are oppressed or dominated or colonized, but also to those (presumably white) scholars and thinkers who are willing to speak to, rather than about, the colonized and listen to their responses, who are willing to tell their own stories of decolonization and to meet with the colonized in that marginal space of resistance and transformation.

“Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” makes me think about how some of my students relate to the university as a place of power and domination. Moreover, it also makes me consider how my research might enable me to enter the margin hooks describes at the end of the essay. Can I follow her command to “Enter that space” by telling the story of my own decolonization? Do I have that kind of story to tell? I don’t know—or rather, I do, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s much of a story. Not yet. Perhaps someday. Perhaps this research will lead to that kind of narrative. That’s a possibility I will hold on to.

Work Cited

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between the Lines, 1990, pp. 145-53.


8. Bill Waiser, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905

waiser a world we have lost

Why would an otherwise sane person put a 630-page book on his comprehensive examination reading list? Good question. I bought a copy of Bill Waiser’s A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 in hardcover, when it first came out, partly because it won the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language non-fiction, and partly because I’m interested in the history of this place. My comprehensive exams would give me a chance to finally read the book, I reasoned. And so, as a change from reading about Deleuze and the fold, I opened Waiser’s history on New Year’s Day.

A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905 is a work of narrative history, rather than, like Sheldon Krasowski’s No Surrender, a book that makes an argument. Waiser sets out to tell the story of Saskatchewan before it became a province. He begins with Henry Kelsey, the first European to see the prairies of Saskatchewan, near what is is today the city of Yorkton. Kelsey worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a trading monopoly in what was then called Rupert’s Land—all of North America that drained into Hudson’s Bay—and he had been sent by his employers with instructions to invite First Nations living in the interior of Rupert’s Land to trade with the Company. At that time—just 20 years after the Bay had been granted its trading monopoly by King Charles II—the HBC expected that First Nations people who wanted to trade would make their way to its post at York Factory, on Hudson’s Bay. It was a long and difficult journey, however, and few First Nations people wanted to make it. Besides, the Bay was already facing competition from Montreal traders who were making the long trip, by canoe, into the interior of what is now Saskatchewan. Kelsey’s journey was part of the HBC’s first venture into the continent’s interior. So, in June 1690, Kelsey set off with a group of Assiniboine or Nakoda people who were going home after trading at York Factory. Kelsey was hardly the heroic figure he has become in twentieth-century mythology, including his mention in folksinger Stan Roger’s anthem “Northwest Passage.” Instead, as Waiser points out, Kelsey was only there because the Assiniboine accepted him as a guest. “Simply put,” Waiser writes, “the HBC servant was a passenger, not a pathfinder” (10). 

More than half of Waiser’s book is devoted to the history of the fur trade in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, so beginning with Kelsey’s story makes a lot of sense. And the role of Indigenous peoples in the story of the fur trade, as Waiser tells it, is not unlike their role in Kelsey’s journey inland. With a few exceptions—the violence the North West Company perpetrated in the early years of the 19th century on First Nations peoples who decided to trade with the HBC, for example—the fur trade took place according to rules established by First Nations. Trading sessions took place according to Indigenous ceremonial protocols. Fur traders could establish posts inland (or, for that matter, on the shores of Hudson’s Bay) because Indigenous peoples allowed them to be there. Traders provided luxury goods, not necessities, and in the days before inland trading posts, when First Nations peoples were expected to make the difficult trip to York Factory or, later, Prince of Wales Fort (now Churchill, Manitoba), they might set out on a trading mission every four or five years, if that frequently. First Nations on the plains south of the boreal forest who hunted bison on horseback in the 18th century, such as the Blackfoot, could not be convinced to trade with any of the newcomers: the immense herds of countless bison fulfilled all of their material needs. Even in the early days of settlement in the 1870s and 1880s, and even after the Métis Resistance of 1885, when the balance of power was shifting dramatically in favour of Euro-Canadians, Waiser notes, “Indians chose to co-operate with the newcomers . . . and without their acquiescence, the history of the settlement in the North-West might have been written in blood” (598). But once settlers began to arrive, this long history of cooperation, in which Indigenous peoples were the senior partner in the relationship, was forgotten. “It was only the future that mattered,” Waiser writes (623). “For many of the newcomers that took up homestead land or moved to booming communities along an ever-expanding network of rail lines, Saskatchewan’s past had no meaningful place in their memory” (630). Of course, that future is now the past, and while farming and ranching towns celebrate their own history, anything that predates the arrival of settlers near their communities is ignored. 

Although Waiser relies on documentary history sources, rather than oral history, the fact that First Nations were the senior partners in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and newcomers is clear in this book. So too is the ecological impact of trapping, and later the pemmican and bison hide trade, on animal populations and, therefore, on the lives of the peoples who depended on those animals for survival. As areas were trapped out—as populations of beaver in particular fell because of over-trapping—traders pushed farther inland. And the fur trade itself ran on pemmican, made from bison meat: that is what fed the traders and the coureurs de bois who paddled canoes full of furs or trade goods to and from Hudson’s Bay or Montreal. In the 19th century, the demand for hides—used to make conveyor belts for the rapidly industrializing United States—was added to the demand for pemmican, and the bison population began to decline. By 1879, bison had been extirpated from the northern plains. It would have been an unthinkable change for First Nations peoples who had depended on the bison. The dwindling size of the herds was a crucial factor in the demand by First Nations for treaties with the new Dominion of Canada. What struck me from reading Waiser’s book—even though he doesn’t analyze the story of the bison’s disappearance in this way—was how the resources of the northern prairies and boreal forest were ravaged once the region became incorporated into capitalism. Once the animals became raw material, resources rather than entities in relationship with Indigenous peoples—a relationship that had existed since the end of the last Ice Age—they were consumed. Later, the forests went the same way, as the trees became a resource valued as a potential exchange rather than as something of value in themselves. In Heideggerian terms, the animals and the forests lose their essences and become a “standing-reserve” (Heidegger 19) through technology, but also through the extension of capitalism into what was known as the North-West. If we’re looking for someone or something to blame for the extirpation of the bison, we ought to begin there.

At other times, however, connections that ought to be made in Waiser’s account are missed. For example, the success of missionaries in what is now Saskatchewan plays a central role in chapter 11, “We Think It The Best,” but Waiser doesn’t hazard any guesses as to the reason First Nations peoples were ready to abandon their beliefs in favour of Christianity in the 1830s and 1840s. The next chapter, though, “If Something Is Not Done,” describes the disorder and suffering on the plains and in the forests caused by changes in the fur trade, the decline of the bison, and most importantly, epidemics of European diseases—particularly smallpox, measles, and dysentery—that killed as many as 50 to 75 per cent of the Assiniboine and Blackfoot (362-63). I know that correlation is not causation, but surely such apocalyptic epidemics would have had tremendous cultural and spiritual effects on their survivors. 

Waiser’s discussion of the numbered treaties—my particular interest—is short and focuses on Treaty 6, although he does rely on Métis translator Peter Erasmus’s account of the negotiations, Buffalo Days and Nights. He is, however, unsparing in his account of how the Dominion government planned for settlement. The relatively cautious assessments of the agricultural potential of the prairies—those prepared by Captain John Palliser and Henry Youle Hind, who mounted separate expeditions to study the prairies in 1857 and 1858—were ignored in favour of geographer John Macoun’s 1879 and 1880 survey, which produced an exaggerated account of the fertility of the plains. Macoun happened to be travelling during exceptionally wet summers, and as a result he concluded “that the shallow, light soils” of Palliser’s Triangle “would become productive once the ground had been broken and cultivated” (455). Those conclusions “were no substitute for reality,” Waiser writes, and “[t]hey were misleading and potentially harmful in the long run, especially because they suggested that the standard 160-acre homestead was appropriate throughout the region” (456). As a result, land that should have been left as prairie was broken for agriculture, with devastating consequences for farmers during subsequent droughts, and for the prairie ecosystem itself. Today, somewhere between 17 and 21 per cent of native grassland is left in Saskatchewan, with more being lost each year (Sawatzky). But the Dominion of Canada wanted settlement to be uniform, despite the variations in soil quality and aridity across the southern part of the province, with calamitous results for an ecosystem Victorian Canadians, in the main, neither understood nor appreciated.

There is much more to discuss about Waiser’s account of Saskatchewan history, but it is a readable narrative and its footnotes lead in many potentially fruitful directions. I would like to read his earlier book on the events of 1885, Loyal Till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion, co-authored with Blair Stonechild, which I am sure informs the discussion of the Resistance in this book. But the need to stay focused on my list compels me to limit my curiosity, to leave Loyal Till Death for another time, and to push ahead with another book on the list.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays, translated by William Lovitt, Harper, 1977, pp. 3-35.

Sawatzky, Katie Doke. The State of Native Prairie in Saskatchewan, 1 October 2018,

Waiser, Bill. A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. Fifth House, 2016.