Saturday, 10 November 2012

The phenomenology of being Canadian and not American

Phenomenology, in Husserl's conception, is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness. This phenomenological ontology can be clearly differentiated from the Cartesian method of analysis which sees the world as objects, sets of objects, and objects acting and reacting upon one another. Wikipedia entry on "Phenomenology"

There was a question recently posed by the Canadian edition of Huffington Post basically asking if Canadians were more interested in American politics than Canadian politics. I just watched a documentary by Glenn Gould called, The Idea of the North. For some reason I'm always struck by the cold, wet autumnness of 1970s Canadian films (always that slushy, cold steamed up look of the camera lens capturing the sad, dreary Canadian autumn-winter on grainy film - must be the filming season of Canadian documentary makers at the time).

Anyhoo, I was watching the film and kept thinking about the Huffington question. I think the main difference between American and Canadian experiences is that the Canadian mythology has more to do with a Cartesian outlook rather than the Husserlian one. What I mean is this: Canadian film-making has the wide, open spaces writ large in its films (almost invariably, though Gould was not one for focussing on people to begin with); whereas the American film-makers tend to focus on the personalities of its characters.

There is something of a tendency for an impersonalization of the Canadian experience - an object reality that is Canadian politics, literary bent, film-making: I think, therefore I am. The top soil is thin and not much can grow. The contents of the policy is a conservative take on the immediate now: we've only got so much to spend and no more. The Canadian North, as romanticized as it is by Canadian mythology, is a perfect example of a conservative vision: bare, undeveloped and sadly lagging behind the times by all measures, literally. It is a polite negligence and alienated don't-know-what-to-do-with-it mentality; there is no grand vision here. I guess the primitive Eskimos (themselves an intrusion to the romantic notions of the North) kind of ruin the idyllic notions of the North. Like the unfinished poem of Keats', Hyperion, the Canadian experience was found unoriginal and the author left it there hanging unable to transcend his grief of losing a loved one besides.

In the American experience, besides the persistent classicalism (Greco-Roman - perhaps it's precisely because of this), it is the drama that ensues when strong personalities clash that make up the story. In keeping with the hapless Hyperion analogy, America is Milton's Paradise Lost (ie, the original vision inadvertantly imitated by Keats). Where Keats aimed too high and couldn't quite make the poem work, America recasted the classical vision in Judeo-christian terms and out came a poem that worked beautifully, epically, capturing the substance of humanity in all its glory and infamy.

The differences between the Canadian and American experiences are of a deep phenomenological nature. But both have its possibilities and limitations. Where one was found not quite adequate to capture what it is to be human, the other finds it can renew itself because that is its nature.


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