Dear John –

There’s a lot we would like to respond to in your open letter to George Bowering, but we will limit ourself to one central point so as not to become tedious, that being your hilarious assertion, “Postmodernism, . . . is . . .  a populist theory that bases literary and political judgments on identity.“ Reading that we suddenly felt that we had been plunged into a story by William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor where the protagonist opens a door to a long locked room to discover a desiccated corpse clutching copies of Robin Skelton’s The Principles of Poetry in one boney hand, and Robin Mathew’s Treason of the Intellectuals: English Canada in the Post-Modern Period in the other. Only Poe could do justice to the foetid miasma that swept out of that benighted space. Is he really, we thought in amazement, going to try and attribute the actions of the ECW workers to a 60-year-old argument over poetry and hold Bowering therefore responsible for their actions because he is a . . . “post-modernist”? And lo, you did, resurrecting in the process a tired old Canadian provincialism disguised as nationalism yoked to an inevitable attack on Charles Olson and so-called “Black Mountain poetics.”

We would prefer not to get into nationalism other than to point out that the border, to quote David Herd, is the defining technology of expulsion, justified, we would add, to defend some claim to purity. While a nationalist stance made some sense in the 60s and 70s in the campaign to get Canadian universities to hire Canadian scholars and study Canadian work, and radio stations to play Canadian artists, even at the height of nationalist frenzy no one ever dismissed the work of a Canadian scholar because they studied Whitman or Eliot, nor the music of Crash Test Dummies or Parachute Club because their sound was influenced by US American pop music. This is where problematic nationalism slips into outright provincialism and gives birth to the Plague of Canadian Poets (to quote Victor Coleman).

The provincialism takes the shape of protecting a non-existent “Canadian” tradition from evil imperial influences threatening its integrity from south of the 49th. John Sutherland was on to this bullshit back in the 40s. Arguing against F.R. Scott’s provincial cronyism, Sutherland pointed out in Other Canadians the obvious fact that Anglo-Canadian writing has always existed between two looming Anglophone alternative traditions – the English and the US American. Having clung to and exhausted whatever England might have had to offer, Canadians, rather than pretending that was a natural condition, should turn, he said, to the US. Writing there had broken new formal ground that bore crucial information about the reality of this colonized space both nations occupied. Beginning with the radical formal address to the reality of North America by Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson and continuing in the explosion of creativity their work unleashed in the early 20th century, US Americans had opened poetry to dimensions of unprecedented formal meaning while Canadians were still mimicking the latest English trends in verse. Sutherland’s advice to Canadian poets was to learn and loot everything they could from the Yanks, then, having acquired the best of both traditions, forge something new, something adequate to the complexities of this new experience.

And that’s exactly what some Canadians did (see, for instance, Sharon Thesen’s brilliant argument about the Canadian “long poem”), moving into a range of recognitions untainted by the US American obsession with . . . well, America. Others, though, clung to what they already knew, bestowing on it the will-o-the-wisp glow of an illusory national essence that had to be protected. The new experience is sometimes referred to as postmodernity. That is an historiographic term, first coined by Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History to acknowledge the fundamental changes that took place at the end of the 19th century in Euro-American political economy and the structure of social imaginary significations that informed and upheld it. The term you prefer — post-modernism — is an aesthetic term popularized by English professors and arts manager in their quest to stake out intellectual real estate where they could develop their careers on the backs of artists. At best it describes a style (see Ihab Hassan), the superficial application of a certain array of conventions and anti-convention conventions that prove how witty the artist is but which mean nothing, are just tokens in a jockeying for career positions. Having been familiar with the work of both Bowering and Wah for some 50 years, we can safely say neither of them ever for a moment succumbed to “post-modernism.”

The poets we know, however, both understand poetry as a particular mode of knowing addressed to articulating the unfolding complexities of this strange Event we find ourselves thrown into. Call it history, where that is an entangled unfolding and sublation, a perpetual destruction and creation, in the midst of which we are all always Newcomers. Olson proposed that knowing as recognition. “A whole new series of recognitions is required,” he said, where recognition and composition are identical. Such a stance (not style) is rooted in the reclamation of authority, the authority to imagine formal means adequate to recognitions that exceed the Given.

You could say it is all about disseminating (democratizing) authority, a defining process since the Reformation, if not the Magna Carta, in different ways and at different rates in different zones of engagement. We have been claiming authority – democracy and humanism –for ordinary individuals, but always within a limit where individual is determined as a property owning white male. If you paid attention rather than retreating behind a nationalist inspired border, you might see how postmodernity has to do with breaching those limits and further disseminating authority.

One issue of course is who has the right to author or authorize the historical narrative itself. As you are no doubt aware, modernity is identical to colonialism. They are two sides of the same historical coin. But it turns out the coin is in the pocket of – surprise! – a white, male property owner, and the story he has been telling, while perfectly adequate to his own recognitions, lacks, shall we say, sensitivity to other experiences, the experiences of those multitudes who were swept up in Europe’s great, colonial adventure, and became living currents swirling through our postmodern circumstance. You could call that postcolonial which, after all, is not some exotic concoction by dreaded “theorists,” but the living fact of our tangled histories as they play out, face to face, every day. The various ideas you piss on having to do with hybridity and mongelization arise out of that rather simple recognition and the complex differential reality it exposes. The thing is, the historical momentum that led that ordinary white guy individual citizen to fight for and seize the authority once jealously possessed only by the church and the aristocracy (he called it democracy) has always been impelled toward further dissemination. You can’t contain it. Andreas Huyssen has argued persuasively that the emergence of various previously silenced populations in the 60s and 70s – Indigenous peoples, Blacks, women, gays – manifested a breach in the integrity of modernity’s patriarchal modes of authority. As such it is deeply implicated in the further dissemination of authority that characterizes postmodernity. The river of history, as it were, flows on.

And history, like a river, is an incommensurable turbulence of forces with different currents surging forward at various rates, giving rise to back currents, pools, white water, falls. The massive historical disturbance, the ontological storm surging out of the 19th and 20th centuries has destabilized all the social imaginary significations that founded the last 500 years of Euro-American culture – citizen, God, democracy, autonomous individual, liberty, civilization, sovereign nation, humanism, to name a few. Because of that, it has caught the attention of some smart people and they have recognized the changes in various ways. It has affected every mode and address of knowing and thinking we have. Your provincialism really shows itself in your anti-intellectual dismissal of contemporary trends of European thinking which you generalize as “post-structuralism.” Post-structuralism was a brief and limited manifestation of a wide-spread ongoing attempt to articulate “a new series of recognitions.” Unfortunately, rather than paying attention to those recognitions, Nativists made post-structuralism into an intellectual boogey-man. Reading your letter, we couldn’t escape the feeling that you are trapped in a 1980s English-Department-nightmare-time-loop, eternally arguing over and over about the pollution of true Canadian criticism by that foreign devil, Jacques “Blackjack” Derrida.

This leads us back to the question of nationalism and its technology of expulsion – the border. Bad Frenchies – keep your high falutn’ gobbledygook on your side of the border. We only speak English here. Don’t try to confuse us honest Canadians with your devil tongues and your weird foreign ideas. Interestingly, Heidegger, your arch demon in this diabolic cabal, picked up many of his key recognitions from Nietzsche who got a lot of his recognitions from Emerson. No doubt that just reinforces your hostility to all things U.S. To me, however, it suggests that postmodernity gets its first articulations from North American settler cultures. The spread of that thinking back to Europe where, after the Holocaust, it achieves further explication and articulation, is an extraordinary opportunity to deepen our understanding of the changes we are all caught up in.

And this takes us back to the source of your amusing idea of “post-modernism” as literary and political judgments based on identity. The tumult of historical change is not coherent. Its dynamic manifestations are myriad, often contradictory, and include currents of resistance by various parties like yourself dedicated to the status quo, or even to making America great again. The radical dissemination of authority that we call “democracy,” the tendency toward the increasing empowerment of the common, common people’s sense of their empowerment, is neither homogenous nor coherent but is enthusiastic and prolific and gets taken up by different people in different ways. The bursts of totalitarian identity based politics that command your attention are just one tiny aspect of it. Usually perpetrated by small groups of very loud people, they tend to receive undue attention because their disgraceful behaviour is useful when disparaging and undermining the larger, deeper, more significant movements in the turbulence.

In one sense you may be right. Bowering’s long commitment to an art of active recognition of our actual condition – say, our postmodern condition – has no doubt contributed to changes that are entangled with those women’s sense of empowerment. And we doubt that Bowering would have any argument with that. The novel at the centre of this event, No One, is in fact a powerful indictment of a culture inundated with patriarchal values. And if you read his letter carefully, you will note that he does not criticize the women for their action. He doesn’t call them names or smear them with innuendo and smug, ad hominem comments. He merely points out that he thinks their criteria are incoherent and attempts to clarify why he thinks that. You, as you do throughout your letter, resort to political scare words to smear that clarification, dismissing that as “mansplaining” without ever explaining why you think that. All Bowering asks is that they use their empowerment justly. All he asks is that they enter the conversation:

I would feel so much better if we could address you by name, because a conversation works better that way, but we will respect anyone’s wish to be anonymous in this regard. If any awkwardness eventuates due to this situation, please understand that we would like a fair exchange of information and views.

Your glee over their failure to do so is shameful.

–Dispatches