Nothing goes better with good scotch than cultural theory (and bad jokes). I was reading Ronald Rompkey’s history of cultural policy in Newfoundland (1998) when a particularly interesting statement caught my eye:
We are a very special race of people but in danger of losing this culture and so the first concept was that we [the planners in charge of Confederation’s 25th anniversary] should try and get our people to practice being what they naturally are, Newfoundlanders. (Nutbeam, 1974)
This jumped out at me for a couple of reasons. Besides being a pretty good statement of the idea that our identities are performative (ie. we become what we naturally are by acting out a social/cultural script.. or at least, that’s what I got out of reading Judith Butler), it also arises at an interesting moment in provincial history. It’s almost a trope at this point to call the post-Smallwood cultural scene the “Newfoundland Renaissance” but I think there is definitely merit to this idea, especially if we consider the way that Moores (and, to a much greater extent, Peckford) mobilized this re-creation of Newfoundland identity for political purposes.
Of course, it also raises a couple of interesting implications: if you’ve got to practice being what you naturally are, how ‘natural’ is this being, exactly? And what happens when the state is charged with regulating and articulating the contours of your natural being? These are the sorts of questions that are bothering me as I put together my paper on the political identity (or more accurately, identities) of Newfoundland.
Rompkey’s article also raises other points. In tracing the evolution of the government’s policy towards cultural production and the arts since Confederation, he identifies a shift that occurs between the Peckford era and the Wells/Tobin administrations of the 1990s. It was at that moment that the government’s approach shifted away from developing and mobilizing a Newfoundland identity primarily for political purposes, towards one of turning it into a commodity to be marketed and consumed; a cultural industry, as it were. This idea opens up an interesting question in its own right: what does it mean for us, what does it do to us, to turn our cultural identity into an object for consumption by tourists? Questions like this were likely less pressing in the wake of needing to find something – anything – to fill the (economic and ontological) void left in the wake of the Cod Collapse, but as far as reflection goes, better late than never.
Rompkey’s account ends in 1998, while Tobin was still in power. I have no idea what he or others have written about the state of cultural policy (and cultural identity itself) in the last 15 years, but presumably that is a task for research. I have a few thoughts of my own, of course. Obviously the commodification of culture hasn’t slowed down or reversed over the past decade; if anything, it has intensified (which is certainly on par with the other literature about the place of culture and the market in ~*postindustrial capitalism*~). But there has also been a stark return to its mobilization for political purposes. Danny Williams’ name is synonymous with popular ideas of contemporary Newfoundland nationalism, and we’ve seen it employed by the Dunderdale administration as well (consider, for instance, appealing to anti-Quebec Revancheism in order to sell Muskrat Falls). It’d be interesting to take a look at the records since 2003 to see the way these two axes have played out in government cultural policy. The questions I teased out of Rompkey here, I think, are especially pertinent in the present situation.
Anyways, I have no idea if/when I’ll get the opportunity to follow up on these questions. But I think, in terms of the way I’m feeling my way through this paper, that it at least reveals the tight link between the state, capitalism, and the production (and perfomance!) of Newfoundland cultural identity, at least post-Smallwood. This broadly lines up with some of the thoughts I’d been having about nationalism (generally) as ideology; that is, Newfoundland nationalism didn’t (and couldn’t) start to take it’s contemporary, properly ideological form until the 1970s, when the province’s class structure had been sufficiently ‘modernized’ by developments post-Confederation.
These thoughts are all preliminary, of course – I haven’t yet been able to sit down and clarify them formally, or really get to dive into the meat of my research material. But they’ve definitely given me something to think about, and I hope they’ve given you something to think about as well.
Nutbeam, Robert W. “Confederation Celebrations” in Newfoundland Quarterly, 70 (4). 1974.
Rompkey, Ronald. “The Idea of Newfoundland and Arts Policy since Confederation” in Newfoundland Studies 14. 1998.