“Sanctioned Ignorance” is an aggressive title, taken from Gayatri Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. However, the ignorance referred to is not necessarily a deliberate one, although I suppose often consciously – and conveniently – acquiesced to. It’s an institutionally encouraged ignorance, here in Paul Martin’s view encouraged by the institution of anglophone-Canadian literature studies – a conveniently sanctioned ignorance of, among other things, the early history of Canadian Literature studies, of the 25% of Canadian literature produced by francophone Canadians, and of the tokenism of the representation of anglophone-Canadian literature in Canadian English department curricula – usually less than 10% of the total course offerings. Overall this ignorance is a comfortable habitus: Martin draws substantially here on the work of Pierre Bourdieu to theorize and describe its effects on teaching, research, and conceptions of canonicity.
Martin is a former director of the Canadian Studies Program at the University of Vermont and currently Faculty Development Coordinator at MacEwan University in Edmonton. His book is the culmination of a 20-year research project that began -- in my 1993 graduate course at Western Ontario -- with an investigation of the CanLit course descriptions of most anglophone-Canadian universities, resumed in 1997-98 with a more thorough collection course descriptions and a 6-week interview tour of anglophone and francophone professors in the field, and continued with an online investigation of relevant course descriptions for 2007-08. From this data he has created ranked lists of the 400 or so Canadian books that appear on CanLit course descriptions and made charts that show the percentages of Canadian Literature courses at 22 anglophone universities, percentages which in 2007 ranged from highs of more than 15% of the English department courses offered at the University of Victoria, Carleton, and Concordia to lows close to 5% at Simon Fraser, Calgary and Acadia. Evidently the presence of highly productive Canadianists at Simon Fraser or high-profile writers at Calgary has not readily translated into rich undergraduate CanLit offerings. Calgary ranks similarly in Martin’s 1997-98 findings.
Martin argues that the ways in which the various Canadian literatures have been configured in anglophone Canada reflect the kinds of Canada that the country’s anglophone elites have desired. In the 19th century the desire was for a British Canada in the which Canadian writers strove for but deferred to the greater “quality” of the British classics. In the late 20th century it was for an up-to-date Canada in which contemporary Canadian authors such as Davies, Atwood, Shields and Ondaatje competed successfully with American and British writers for international awards. This
The exclusion of French-language texts in translation from most courses would appear to imply – although Martin never specifically says this – that a third desire of the anglophone-Canadian elites, and their Canadianists, has been for francophone-Canadian culture to vanish. “Rarely in 2007-08 did any works in translation appear in a regular survey course. In total there were eighteen different French titles in translation that were taught in 2007-08, which from a list of 495 titles taught that year means that roughly 25% of this country’s population and literary production was represented by 3.6% of the books taught” (177).
Martin’s statistics are convincing, and are probably not that surprising to most in the field. His central accusation is not that anglo-Canadianists aren’t aware of the tokenism, presentism and cultural separatism that their activities endorse; it’s that they have ignored calls – from Barbara Godard in 2008, Sarah King in 2004, and myself in 1995 and 97, among others – to reflect on them. “With just a handful of exceptions, nearly every professor with whom I spoke had no knowledge of what types of courses other departments offered in the field. In fact, many had little knowledge of how colleagues in their own department taught their courses on the literatures of Canada .... It was as if many professors resided in a voluntary state of house arrest” (xxvii). “[T]here is a tremendous opportunity for scholars and teachers today to begin to question the myriad assumptions that current course structures and literature curricula make on a daily basis” (xxxi).
I agree with many of Martin’s comments, including his belief that serious mistakes were made back in the late 1960s and early 1970s when no anglophone-Canadian university established a program or department that offered combined degrees in anglophone- and francophone-Canadian literatures. These mistakes, I would add, included not requiring competence in French for most of the new doctorates in CanLit – by now that barn door has been open much too long to be easily closed. I agree also with his observation of the presentism in the current teaching and much of the research – it has been evident in almost every one of the important criticism anthologies of the past decade, especially Miki and Kamboureli’s TransCanLit. Martin may well be correct that this reflects more a habit of mind than conscious choice. “A Prisoner of its Own Amnesia” he titles his chapter on the university’s contribution to the (anglophone) Canadian literary institution.
Amid this amnesia, much effort has been exerted in recent years by CanLit scholars at “shifting the ground of Canadian Literary Studies,” as Smaro Kamboureli and Robert Zacharias expressed it in the title of their 2012 anthology. Canadian Literature is in a “crisis,” the TransCanLit conference call for papers proclaimed in 2005. Canadian literary studies may have to be postcolonial, three collections of essays mooted in 2003 and 2004. Martin’s book imagines a much more drastic shifting of the ground, a recognition of the actual cultural and linguistic diversity and quantity of the texts being created in Canada – not just an opening of the disciplinary field to more First Nations, black-Canadian or Asian-Canadian texts but a transforming of it to encompass all of the country’s textual diversity. Not likely to happen. As Martin recognizes, too many people in the academy – students, teachers, researchers, editors and administrators – are now comfortable with the habitus of the Canadian Literature institution’s “sanctioned ignorance,” and have at least unconscious stakes in its continuance.
There are one or two gaps in this book that puzzle me. Martin does not refer to Sarah King’s 2003 University of Western Ontario doctoral dissertation, An Uncomfortable Match: Canadian literature and English departments in Canada, 1919-1965, which undertakes a similar Bourdieu-inspired reading of the Canadian literary institution and offers documented histories of the history of Canadian literature teaching at individual universities. Her dissertation can be read online through the Western University library website. He also has not inquired into the comprehensive examination reading lists that departments set for their Canadian-field doctoral candidates. These, it seems to me, are even more revealing of the habitus young Canadian literature specialists are being initiated into than are the reading lists of undergraduate courses. The lists demonstrate the constraints that questions of ‘coverage’ and ‘representation’ are currently placing on the field, and the extent to which anglophone-Canadian literature has outgrown the institutional structures which contain it. As with the undergraduate reading lists, every welcome addition occasions a painful subtraction.
Martin also pays little attention to the openings being created by the digital distribution of texts. He laments how the anthology investments of multinational publishers have locked the field into a rigid and questionable canon but seems unaware of how the use of such anthologies could end abruptly during this decade, made unprofitable by recent changes to Canadian copyright law and the increasing competition of coursepacks. The self-reinforcing, canonicity-creating cycle of professors adopting in-print novels and publishers keeping them in print because they’ve been adopted (86) could also be broken by online publications that make many more texts available.
As well, I have reservations about the extent to which Martin seems to blame English departments for the exclusion of francophone texts in translation from their reading lists. In my experience it is usually faculty regulations which give exclusive teaching rights to such texts to French departments, and French departments which police any infractions. But this practice too could be about to change, because of the ongoing crisis in modern-languages teaching as the global internet-assisted spread of English continues. Long-established departments of German, Spanish and Italian have already been absorbed at many Canadian universities into Modern Languages departments. Departments of French have been shrinking and sometimes also amalgamated into larger units, such as the University of Alberta’s Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies. At the recently established Okanagan campus of the University of BC neither French nor English are traditional departments but are instead programs within a Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies. Such changes could be making possible a more flexible and inclusively Canadian CanLit curriculum – not the bicultural curriculum Martin believes was possible 50 years ago but one perhaps more appropriate to the varieties of cultural change all parts of the country are now encountering.