Sovereignty and Culture

By Austin-Smith, Brenda | Canadian Dimension, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview

Sovereignty and Culture


Austin-Smith, Brenda, Canadian Dimension


How are sovereignty and culture connected? The relations between the two terms are multiple and complex, and any political movement identifying itself with the Left does well to think broadly, as well as specifically, about the links between them. We can only do this by first exploring what is meant by the two terms themselves. What is culture? What is sovereignty?

One definition of culture equates it with ideology: a patterned set of beliefs and expectations that shapes our perceptions of social relations. Another popular definition of culture defines it as the immediate environment of accepted practices and behaviours affected by material conditions (of work, for example). Culture is also understood as that aspect of society to which we feel some attachment, with which we identify, that we cherish and project. There is also culture as creative endeavour, the product of artistic engagement with materials and practices.

These are the most common definitions of the term "culture," and in any discussion of the term these meanings shift and overlap. Curiously, though, it is this last definition of culture -- as the actual production of creative artifacts -- that is often overlooked in political discussions about the connections between culture and the project of sovereignty. And it is precisely this version of culture that needs the support and attention of the Left.

The word "sovereignty" most commonly refers to forms of self-government and independence. Sovereignty is power over one's destiny, self-control, and it is shaped by access to material resources that support independence, and by forms of cultural capital like education. Sovereignty can also be understood as a form of "rule over," a kind of supremacy that goes further than independence.

How, then, are these two ideas related? Are there ideal relations between them that we on the Left should seek? What kinds of sovereignty are we exploring, here, in the context of culture? And what kind of culture are we protecting in the name of sovereignty?

The most obvious sovereignty for the Left to champion is national sovereignty -- with the entailment of Canadian control over cultural policy. National sovereignty affects the concrete situations of artists and cultural production in Canada in areas like the one I study: film. At present, for example, Canadian films account for about three per cent of what is shown on-screen in Canadian movie theatres. The absence of Canadian-produced cultural materials in the theatres of the country intersects with all the other forms of culture defined above.

For it is in cultural artifacts like films that emotional connections to land, language, heritage and local practices are both criticized and celebrated, enacting a dynamic of national and cultural identity that can resist the imposition of a single sense of what a national culture might look like. It is also in cultural materials like films that diverse visions of social relations in Canada find representation. …

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