The Knowledge of Canada / the Canada of Knowledge: Representing the Nation in Canadian Reference Books

By Shea, Victor; Whitla, William | English Studies in Canada, September-December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Knowledge of Canada / the Canada of Knowledge: Representing the Nation in Canadian Reference Books


Shea, Victor, Whitla, William, English Studies in Canada


THE DUST JACKET of THE CANADIAN ENCYCLOPEDIA (3rd edition, 1999) literally wraps the reference book in the flag, a device referred to by publisher Avie Bennett in his foreword: "It is no accident that the cover for this book is based on the Canadian flag. Like our flag, the Encyclopedia represents our country" (iii). In October 2001 in an advertisement for the online version, as well as in a corporate home-page, the Canadian flag is displayed as part of the web-page's corporate symbol ("Historica" Advertisement). A similar gesture, combining a symbol of the nation with scholarship and marketing, adorns another best-selling Canadian reference book, The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998), which also displays the Maple Leaf prominently on its dust jacket. In advertising the dictionary on its American corporate website where the dust jacket and the Maple Leaf are reproduced, Oxford University Press states that by its publication "Canadians finally have a dictionary that truly reflects their nation" ("Canadian"). In both instances the national icon not only markets a reference book, but also specifies its contents: the flag signals that each book "represents" or "reflects" Canada. These reference books present knowledge of Canada in several ways: they narrate Canada's history and define the national cultures and languages; they provide an epitome or summation of cultural literacy about Canada, and they present slices of the national life at specific times. By challenging the contradictions in these reference books about their own epistemology and about Canadian unity, we argue that the constructedness or textuality of the contents of these reference books, what we call the Canada of knowledge, is effaced in the direct equation between the reference book and Canadian nation. (1)

Apart from marketing strategies, such symbolic connections between reference books and nationalism have a long and complex history, fraught by contradictions between knowledge as objective, comprehensive, and totalized, and knowledge as shaped in moments of nationalist self-definition or widespread political propagandizing. This paper traces some aspects of this history, examining the problematic space between two discourses, the politics of nationalism and the epistemology of reference books.

On the one hand, the knowledge of Canada as a limited entity in historical time and geographical space is inscribed in reference books by means of thousands of entries containing factual information. The accumulation of these facts, whether encyclopedia entries or dictionary definitions, is claimed to represent the nation, its history, cultures, and languages, as a totality. The contents of a reference book, however, in the advertising and introductory materials as well as in the entries themselves, also allude to an unlimited and unquantifiable entity, the universalized experience of life and language in Canada. In their admirable fullness, these reference books claim to depict the plenitude of Canadian experience over time and space, and to represent complete real-life or real-world knowledge that is impossible to know or represent literally.

On the other hand, these reference books represent Canada by means of textuality: that is, the Canada of knowledge signifies both the scholarly conditions under which the many entries are constructed and represented as authoritative, and also the textual conditions of the entries which have to be edited, selected, compared, systematized, and incorporated into a reference book that is itself part of an identifiable genre with its own history, its own canonical tradition. Editors and publishers make limited allusions to the scholarly and textual conditions of their productions; however, as we shall see, these gestures are continually elided in favour of the claims that the reference book transparently imitates or reflects the whole country over time.

The Canadian Encyclopedia (CE), in both its English and French versions, and The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (con) have been marketed and rightly acclaimed as major cultural achievements and as important stages in the development of excellent reference sources for Canadians. …

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