A Riposte (of sorts) to Sarah Garton Stanley

Though probably I surrender some amount of high ground by doing so, I must begin this post with a bashful mea culpa. In her latest, rather moving & impressive article for SpiderWebShow’s #CdnCult Times, National Arts Centre English Theatre A.D. Sarah Garton Stanley calls me out on a rhetorical snafu by citing my previous post:

[Offord] goes on to say: “The fact of the matter is, we Canadians are deeply insecure about most things, & our theatre scene (I’m being hugely Toronto-centric in this, note; Toronto’s all I know, really), … has an inferiority complex for which “Napoleonic” is putting it mildly.

The use of the word “fact” is incredible here and so too is the use of a “we”, or “our”, all of which leads to paradox of the “us”. How interesting.

Yeah, I deserved that one. I should probably avoid making sweeping, nationality-based generalizations while at the same time attacking the substantive value of both nations & generalization. Garton Stanley’s barbed acumen on this point & others (“intermittently accurate” is such a great phrase I may have to steal it) is matched only by the very touching account she gives of her teenage years, inveigled by Levesque’s particular brand of acid-sharp PQ separatism, & the lasting effect this had on her patriotic father. It’s a lovely passage, & apropos; we can forget all too easily that these questions do not dwell just in the suburbs of academic discussion (I almost used the word “discourse” there – without irony – which perhaps says a lot about me). These issues matter.

However, my own linguistico-paradoxical conundra aside, issues of words & how we define them abound in Garton Stanley’s piece as much as they do mine. It is no coincidence that her opening salvo provides us with her own working definition of the word “collectivity”:

  • The quality or condition of being in a collective.

The tautology here is evident, & makes the definition unhelpful. If collectivity is “the quality or condition of being in a collective,” what is a collective? & what conditions have to be satisfied before you or I or Sarah Garton Stanley can consider ourselves part of one? Her second definition, for the word “collaboration” is much more interesting:

  • To work together especially in a joint intellectual effort or to cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one’s country.

Here’s why I dig it so much: the key phrase is, “to cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one’s country.” Conflict, division, & disparateness are implied even in the definition for collaboration; agon appears to be the state of things a priori. This is perhaps what Margaret Thatcher herself meant when she said (as Garton Stanley quotes), “There is no such thing as society.” Namely, that what we call “society” is an illusory gestalt for any number of individual beings – Thatcher denied that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

For acolytes of Ayn Rand or the libertarian Right, this is dogma, & I can see how Garton Stanley may have read tones in it my own piece. Let me assure you that this was not my intention; my own politics slouch somewhere to the left of Chomsky these days.  What I was suggesting however is that when we talk of a National Theatre of Canada, we are talking about an apparatus of a state, a thing which avers the reality & legitimacy of both nations & “Canada.” I can’t see how the two issues are separable, & it is on this point that Sarah Garton Stanley & I seem to have our major disagreement.

She believes that a National Theatre of Canada can “represent many nations within its borders.” Maybe it could, but not without stretching the definition of what National Theatre is past the point of recognition. Her vision is of

[a national theatre as] a swath of metal shards blanketing the land: each shard representing some awesome creative practice. While a magnet could pull it all under one roof, the strength exists by allowing this possibility to linger without ever exercising the right to call in the magnetic chips.

 It’s a beautiful metaphor, but for what? While we both agree that decentralization would have to be a key feature for any such enterprise, it is difficult to find precedent. Poland, which does have a National Theatre, has one of the most highly decentralized arts funding systems in the world; the federal government allocates a portion of revenue from European Union Structural Funds (which are extremely convolved & complicated systems of wealth distribution unique to the EU, & which I won’t even try to pretend I understand fully) to local governments, who retain relative autonomy to spend them on culture as they see fit. This might (might) be in some ways a superior system to what we have in Canada, but how many of us would want such decisions in the hands of a Rob Ford, or a Mel Lastman?

There is no existing model of a National Theatre that is organic that I know of. I would be thrilled if someone could correct me on this point. Instead, most National Theatres are instituted by governments of varying democracy, deployed to the people for passive consumption.  They do not grow bottom-up from organic communities of people – but top-down.

Which brings me to back to the point I made at the beginning of this essay: words & how we define them. They matter. To some, what we decide to define as a “Canadian National Theatre” might seem semantic. I contend that it’s not. What is represented by the word “Canada” is a state, a power structure, & its legitimacy deserves to be interrogated very seriously. When we create institutions like a National Theatre of Canada, just as when we create institutions like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or the Canadian Olympic teams, we are creating institutions which have built-in ideological templates. Whether these templates indicate the best means by which human beings can organize themselves with others is probably a matter of some controversy. I think my opinion on this point is pretty clear, though many (most) disagree with me.  But what cannot be denied (at least, not convincingly argued) is that ultimately a National Anything owes fealty to power. & I don’t mean the whims of any particular ruling party or Prime Minister, but to the structures of power which organize you & me & Sarah Garton Stanley & another 34.88 million people into a convenient grouping called “Canadians,” defined by arbitrary boarders established in colonial wars hundreds of years ago, structures which tell us that we’re all the same, or that we have the same interests, & that underneath the bullshit of it all, those interests converge on the business interests which have provided us with the level of comfort & wealth we’ve come to define – however vaguely – as “Canadian society.”

One need only ask the Elsipogtog, the Mi’kmaq, the PQ – or even Torontonians who don’t want Enbridge building pipelines under their homes – just how dangerous those power structures can be.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Sarah Garton Stanley herself does not advocate in her piece or anything else I’ve read of hers, the system I’ve described above. Our disagreement seems in some ways to be about language – but as I think we’ve found through our exchange, language is not “just” language. We’re confronted with the same dilemma as Feste in Twelfth Night: Words have grown so dishonest, we can scarce prove reason with them. In some ways, this is frustrating for me – in others, affirming. I believe in words, & in language. I believe that through language – through the exchanges SpiderWebShow encourages – we can change the state of things. Thatcher’s agon does not have to be our fate.

I’ll end by saying that I think Ms. Garton Stanley & I agree on more points than we’ve conflict. She writes,

To my mind, the SpiderWebShow is an attempt to connect the invisible lines between these metal shards and to illuminate conduits between these pieces so that creative energy can flow through our collective space and bolster the whole damn thing. In this sense my belief in a National Theatre does manifest here in the action of revealing the breadth of Canadian theatre.

Again, linguistico-paradoxical conundra abound. But the core truth is one I’ve sympathy for, & is one of the reasons SpiderWebShow excites me. It’s not a capital-N National Theatre because it’s organic, made by people for people, bottom-up. I have high hopes &  expectations for the project, & I think we theatre artists living in the geographic dominion named “Canada” all owe Sarah Garton Stanley, Michael Wheeler, and the SpiderWebShow team a great deal of gratitude indeed.

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