Friday, April 01, 2005


In his column, "Shufflers versus list makers", in last Saturday's Globe and Mail, Carl Wilson made a few interesting observations on the eve of CBC Radio's countdown of the fifty essential, Canadian songs.

Of the programming itself, Wilson writes, "This is what the CBC does instead of exiling hot young things to tropical islands to commit adultery. Eschewing cruel contests of marriageability, parenting, business acumen, worm-eating or modelling, politely anal Canada makes reality shows about lists, about canons of cultural significance--in other words, about Canadian identity."

Wilson is so right about this. Long has the Canadian impulse towards self-definition and taxonomy been observed. True, it has often been easier to engage in a sort of negative taxonomy--"this is not Canadian" or "Canadians are not such-and-such"--but this is nonetheless an act of list-making.

While list-making may or may not be a particularly Canadian occupation, it is a way of making sense of our country and ourselves. As Wilson notes, "Lists can be a way of coding an aesthetic manifesto in a culture hostile to both manifestoes and aesthetics. They're a thought-provoking device and raw material for analysis. [...] More darkly, they [lists] risk implying that one song or book can be measured objectively against another--and that accumulating and quantifying information constitutes a genuine engagement with art."

And as sinister as this sounds, lists become even more complicated when they subject human beings--and not human achievement--to their value-judgments. While it may be possible to rate perversely who the Greatest Canadian is--based, of course, on his or her contribution to Canadian society/culture and, naturally, identity--it is not possible or even worthy to enumerate "Canadian" qualities.

Qualifying and quantifying people can lead as much to their exclusion as to their inclusion in Canadian society. "Canadian" is a citizenship, not a race or ethnicity.

Taxonomy trades in absolutes and therein lies its problem. Once you define what something is, you can control what it is not. There is no room for any grey areas.

This is why I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Canada's navel-gazing. I can appreciate the desire to know and understand oneself. In fact, I try to realize that desire on a personal level. I'm no longer sure how we can try to do this on a public scale, though.

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