Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Restraining Order

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Restraining Order

Article excerpt

MY BEST STUDENT LAST TERM--a nineteen-year old woman named Catherine D. the child of refugees from Vietnam, who spoke only Vietnamese before she began to learn French in elementary school--disliked English throughout the better part of her education. Alongside and inflected through the painstaking mastery of English morphology, syntax, rhythm (and the innumerable other ways by which a language comes into the body and becomes a way of being in the world) was, inevitably, the political question: the predication in language upon which the social subject may be said--metaphorically, but in strikingly literal ways--to be conjugated. For Quebecois students, this besetting question is intellectually productive precisely to the extent that it is irresolvable; the language of the Canadian and American-imperial colonizers arouses fascination and fear, and must remain the object of continual negotiation. It is therefore both ironic and entirely predictable that Catherine has become an English major, and an exceptional one. She moves easily among the registers of French, from la langue soutenue to le gros Quebecois; her spoken English is unaccented; she writes and thinks better than many graduate students; she is already proficient in Spanish and Italian.

Quite apart from her enviable talents, her exceptionality is produced in many ways by the exception that is Montreal, which is to say, Canada. If Montreal is the Distinct Society within the Distinct Society, then these double distinctions, far from cancelling each other, generate the cultural positive that has formed Canada's national imaginary for thirty years: surely this city, where most people function in both official languages, and where a long and continually-evolving history of multicultural richness compels a tolerance that is neither facile nor facile, is where Canada has been most fully realized. For Catherine D., a Canadian and a Quebecoise, the world is her oyster. Her good fortune to be here, at this cultural moment, is a cogent reminder that in the field of identity-politics, language is not a zero-sum game. Now, to avoid sliding by degrees into an apology for federalism (which is really another matter, and one on which I remain both indifferent and oddly passionate), I shall take up the question, "what remains of English Studies?" I do so, however, without quite taking leave of Catherine D., who stubbornly endures in my imagination, long after the semester has ended, as a vivid example of what binds my engagement to this academic thing that used to be a discipline.

But before Catherine D. takes out a restraining order to inhibit my perseverating on her case history, notwithstanding its laudatory manner, let me reframe the question with my own recent history. In the summer of 2002, I left my position at the University of Calgary for one at Universite de Montreal. I wanted better cheese, older buildings, wrought-iron, more irony, a certain rigour around les plaisirs quotidiens, slicker shoes, hardwood floors and ten-foot ceilings, the pearly grey light of a Montreal winter afternoon. And, bored by the dessicating predictability of raceclassgender, the template of the au courant English-Canadian English Department, I wanted frankly a kind of respite in an academic environment in which "the political" would be framed differently. In short, I wanted French. Let me say at the outset that I highly recommend a mid-career move which, ideally, ought to occur before habits, bad or otherwise, have ossified beyond repair: a smart relocation, when combined with a daily regime of L'Occitane en Provence skin-care products, is incredibly rejuvenating. (Human nature being what it is, I now think longingly of western clarities, aridities, and sharpnesses--of big sky country, in short.) Upon arriving in Montreal, I found myself subject to several species of recall. The first, and least pleasant, was the fact that professors of English are entirely reliant upon the McGill University library, which tends to recall books before one has unpacked them from one's briefcase. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.