I was in Ottawa last week for the annual conference of the Canadian Political Science Association. It was a good time.
Ottawa is one of my favourite cities in Canada to visit. It’s beautiful and there is a lot to soak in for a giant nerd like myself. There’s also a lot of visiting to be done because a good number of my poli sci undergrad friends have found themselves there, living the dream (ie. languishing in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy).
The conference wasn’t bad either. It was a good time to meet some cool people working in my field and also to meet even more people who would probably prefer if I fucked off from the political science industry forever. Them’s the breaks. The selection at the beer garden was also good.
I presented on two panels. The first was roughly what I expected; as it turns out, a roomful of quantitative social scientists were not really a super receptive audience for our group presentation about queer/feminist readings of gender, race, and nation in political cartoons from the 1980 Québec referendum and the Patriation of the constitution. Oh well. We’re going to keep plugging away on the project because it’s really great work.
My second panel about ‘Political Science at the Margins’ was great, because I joined many of my friends and colleagues to present my (tentative) dissertation work and conclusively prove that the University of Alberta is the hippest (and most critical) political science department in the country.
Anyway, I thought it went so well that I would post the text of my presentation for the (approx.) 2 people in the world who care about my dissertation topic. This is super broad (eg. yes I am aware this totally glosses over the problems of Althusserian ‘functionalism’ and downplays the struggles/resistances between competing discursive formations within the ISAs themselves, but I only had 5 minutes). Some of the nuts and bolts are going to change over the course of the process, but this is the general thrust of what I’m working on at the moment.
4 June 2015
Ok! Well first off, I’d like to thank Margot [Challborn] for organizing this panel and bringing all these smart and talented people together, and also for letting me get up here and pretend to be one myself.
I’d also like to thank the conference organizers for really underscoring the theme of ‘political science at the margins’ by putting us so late on the last day of the conference after a lot of people have already left Ottawa. As a teacher, I really appreciate the object lesson and I’m sure the audience does as well.
Since we’re on the subject of margins, I suppose I should outline which margins I’m coming from. CPSA is always a great personal reminder that I am a total outsider to this discipline. I’m interested in Marxism, Spinoza, psychoanalysis, and feminism, so most respectable political philosophers won’t give me the time of day. And since I don’t know what a regression is, most “Canadianists” don’t think I’m doing real political science either.
But that’s okay! I’m definitely more fun at parties, and that’s all that really matters.
As a Newfoundlander writing about Canadian politics without being wrapped up in the post-Confederation Stockholm Syndrome, I’m also a bit of an odd man out, because no one west of Port-aux-Basques gives a shit about what happens on that island. But I firmly believe this works to my advantage. Being caught up in Newfoundland’s hauntology, I’m basically immune to the affective forces of Canadian nationalism. This actually helps a great deal in terms of critically engaging with it.
And ‘a critical engagement with Canadian nationalism’ is probably the best way to describe what I’ve been doing for the last few years, as well as the broad thrust of my dissertation.
I wrote my comprehensive exam in Canadian politics basically arguing that Canada contains within itself a set of conflicting identities. Broadly speaking, there are three major sets of ideas about Canada: the essentially ‘imperialist’ vision, handed down to us by the drunken Anglophiles known as the Fathers of Confederation; there is Pierre Trudeau’s utopian vision of a pan-Canadian individualist liberal order, the wet dream of this country’s technocratic centre-left; and finally, there is a vision of Canada as a multinational democracy, where largely autonomous national groups exist in political cooperation with one another. Federalism here is less a cluster of elites battling for spending power and more a genuine ethical orientation for its citizens – you know, how to live together and democratically share in the business of ruling.
What I’m currently interested in – assuming my dissertation proposal ever gets accepted – is how the Canadian state mobilizes and manages bodies in the service of these different nation-building projects. In particular, I’m wagering that we can re-read philosopher Louis Althusser as an affect theorist who was doing ‘affect theory’ before ‘affect theory’ was a thing. His contribution to the theory of ideology is basically that its function is to ‘train our bodies to think’, and that sounds like affect to me.
Ideology is not a ‘false consciousness’ to be opposed by ‘the truth’, but instead shapes the way our bodies feel and perceive the world around us. It names the way our desires, our most intimate experiences of ourselves, are mediated through the social systems of power that surround us. To paraphrase Lauren Berlant, ideology is literally ‘in us’ as the basic structuring condition for ‘making sense’ of the overload of sensory information our bodies take in (and process) every moment of every day.
So what Althusser calls ‘ideological state apparatuses’ are the institutions (ie. the Church, the family, the school system, the media, etc) that manage and mobilize these affective configurations in service to the dominant mode of production – which, in Canada, can best be described as settler-colonial capitalism.
Struggles between competing visions of Canada obviously exist in relation to the changes in the material structure of the Canadian economy, and thirty years of neoliberalism have obviously had an impact on how our economy operates. And since Harper came to power in 2006, we’ve seen the institutionalized return (and re-imagining) of the ‘imperialist’ vision of Canada. It isn’t quite as hung up on Canada’s British connection as its older iterations (although that is clearly also present, since now the Queen’s portrait is everywhere) but instead emphasizes Canada’s role in the global vanguard of Western, (white) liberal capitalist ‘civilization’ against the ‘barbarous’ and despotic Oriental hordes.
I want to trace the emergence of this (re)vision of Canada through two ISAs in particular. The first is national museums, which are elite-centred, cultural ‘temples’ where citizens are ‘baptized’ into the nation through material ‘rituals’ of organized remembrance. I’m not being glib here, this is literally how the first curator of the Canadian Museum of Civilization described the institution’s mandate.
The second is professional hockey. It’s by far the most popular, widespread, and easily accessible cultural engagement for most Canadians, and as “Canada’s game” it plays a big role in Canadian identity formation. Its link to Canadian militarism is pretty fascinating too, as is its relationship to violent masculinity. Basically, I think there’s a reason that the only thing Stephen Harper has published since becoming prime minister is a history book about Canadian hockey, and we can probably learn a lot by reading it symptomatically.
This is all pretty unorthodox for a ‘political scientist’ to be doing. But I have this radical idea that the way people go about their ordinary lives shapes how they feel, think, and act, and that to understand how power relationships in Canada organize and reproduce themselves, we should be looking both high and low. We should look not only at the explicit machinery of state power, but also its more subtle and pervasive movements at the margins.