The Logic of Empire

Writing our histories differently

When the Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened in Winnipeg, in 2014, the controversies didn’t so much greet it as precede it on a red carpet of anger. That is to say, before the building by the distinguished American architect Antoine Predock even saw completion, the logic of the space had been comprehensively interrogated.

Sponsored by the much-reviled media magnate Izzy Asper and owned by what is still technically known as the Crown in Canada, the museum invited objection from the word go. There were questions about its failure to acknowledge Indigenous land claims at the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, its strange stance on Ukrainian Canadians who helped shape modern Manitoba, and, indeed, its design by a foreign architect. The standard, almost pro forma objections that it was over schedule and over budget — $350 million, rather than the planned $200 million — seemed fairly pale in comparison.

And yes, since it came up, why was there not a Canadian architect involved on this landmark, perhaps Frank Gehry (too expensive?) or the genius Douglas Cardinal, whose Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, is a gem of this country’s built environment?

I first saw the new museum as a striking half-finished structure in 2010. I had returned to my sort-of hometown to give a conference talk called “My City’s Still Breathing.” The title was taken from a Weakerthans song, “Left and Leaving,” a masterful track penned by John K. Samson in 2000. I got to meet Samson at the conference and heard him play beautifully. The event also featured an appearance by John Waters, the Ironic Sage of Baltimore, who drew pretty much every hipster for miles around (and probably every gay man in southern Manitoba) to a downtown cinema near Portage and Main that I used to visit regularly but that had lately become a shell of its former self.

I went there twice just to see the 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise (directed by Brian De Palma), which was somehow a bigger hit in Winnipeg than anywhere else in the world. This is actually true, and the career of Guy Maddin, possibly also that of Kent Monkman, might be quite different if not for the influence of Paul Williams, the movie’s lead, and what Wikipedia calls a “musical rock opera horror comedy.” I have an acquaintance with both Maddin (sixty-three) and Monkman (fifty-five), but, even though I have written about their work, I have not confirmed our shared cultural influences, and I’m pretty sure none of us met back in the Peg in the 1970s. Though that is too bad — might have been fun. (For anyone keeping track, I am fifty-six as of this writing.)

And the Wholesale City is only sort of my hometown because my father, who was an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, served there for about seven years, which happened to fall across my junior high and high school years. I was born in Toronto’s West End — at St. Joseph’s near High Park.

I mention all of this, circuitously, to approach Ariella Azoulay’s bulky and brilliant new book, which is about the logic of empire. Her argument, building on previous works concerning discourse and photography, is that empire executes a kind of shutter effect, creating snapshots of narrative influence that fix and freeze material conditions, usually of oppression, in apparently naturalized form. A fancy-theory person would call this “reification,” and that is precisely what Azoulay — a professor of culture, media, and comparative literature at Brown University — wishes to bring to our attention. Images, phrases, tales, and dispatches create history — a point as evident from Herodotus as from Carlo Ginzburg — while also shaping thought and politics. Narrative is ideology, and vice versa.

So when I think about the otherwise unremarkable mid-size city of Winnipeg, I cannot help but consider its imperial positioning. It is, as per its somewhat grandiose slogan, the Gateway to the West. In Alfred Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps — released in 1935, with handsome Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, based on a novel by Scottish-born John Buchan, also known as Lord Tweedsmuir, governor general of Canada from 1935 to 1940, who died in Montreal — there is a scene in which the distance from Montreal to Winnipeg is an actual plot point. (I won’t spoil it: rent the movie! You can also check out remakes, in colour, from 1959 and 1978.)

Imagine us, then, kids in Winnipeg, feeling like we lived at the end of the world, watching that scene set in London, an imperial world away. I have long tried to show my younger colleagues how, when I was a student their age, the dreaming spires were all of Cambridge, Oxford, and maybe the London School of Economics (Mick Jagger went to LSE, we were told). The perspiring dreams, as one wag put it, were of rosy young lads and ladies, good beer, and ploughman’s lunches.

I ended up going to Edinburgh, not Oxford, and though I found my way to Cambridge later, the Scottish experience is instructive. What is empire? Azoulay is a contrarian, and she confounds expected conceptions of it. This is good. She argues, with force, that notions of history and human rights, together with their material housing — including, maybe centrally, galleries and museums like our own Museum of Human Rights — are complicit in narratives of empire that must be challenged. Indeed, what is a museum except a house for narrative, an ideology barn?

Another Winnipeg memory, if readers will indulge it. When I was in grade school, circa 1976, I was forced to visit the natural history museum downtown. I still recall being profoundly disturbed by a life-size wax-figure diorama of an “Indian” scalping a “white man.” My visual memory of this now highly contentious installation is vivid. I can clearly recall the white man’s teeth as his mouth writhes open, the bloody forehead torn open by a figure in breechcloth wielding a long blade. Ugh. Why is that horrible, unjustifiable image still in my brain? Imperialism may well be why.

Azoulay is opinionated and sometimes wrong-headed in these hundreds of pages, but hey, why not? Her main arguments are on point. There is a brief, name-only index that is borderline helpful but mostly disappointing. (Why publishers of serious books do not commission more serious indexes is a topic for another kind of imperialistic analysis.) The idea of potential history has legs. How do we rewrite imperial narratives? Well, we open them up. We make room for new counterfactual storylines. We brainstorm.

Potential History includes about a hundred images, and this approach has been central to Azoulay’s academic method, once more with effect. And also once more, I will make a personal connection. In my 2008 book, Concrete Reveries, it seemed obvious, if not imperative, that images of cities and urban architecture should supplement the main text. Luckily, creative publishers in New York and Toronto were prepared to go along. The resulting volume is something I am very proud of.

I trust that Azoulay feels the same about Potential History, where she has often skirted traditional copyright law, an imperial legacy indeed, to secure those pictures. The images here are more illustrative and less immersive than in some books of similar visual inclination. They do not engage the reader as much as might be desired.

Quibbles aside, I appreciate Azoulay’s argument that a basic condition of narrative is shuttering: the shutter of a camera to create an image, a time-based light grab, but also the shutter of curtains and window coverings to block a view. This form of bracketing is at once the condition of possibility of storytelling and its basic fiction. A photograph, as Roland Barthes reminds us in La chambre claire, from 1980, is not the truth. It is, instead, an artful lie, its apparent stillness even more distracting than the deceptive lifelikeness of a moving picture, which seems to create or reflect a world. A still image, like a still-life painting, is a portrait of death.

Barthes wrote Camera Lucida in what was certainly a period of mourning, and perhaps depression. His mother had died in 1977, three years previously, and the book would prove to be his last. It is sentimental, fragmentary, and frustrating. It has also proven oddly influential for a work that does not explore the technique or theory of photography. The main distinction, drawn from theology, is between studium and punctum: that is, an image that is deliberately isolated for study versus one that is viewed by a random stab, as in the old game of finding a relevant scriptural verse to dwell on by happenstance finger-pointing.

My own mother died last year, and I can tell you, frankly, that the still images of her, especially old ones that include me or my brothers as children, are hard to look at. At the same time, you could not pry them from my hands unless and until I am lifeless myself.

I know this is a long way from imperialism, but Azoulay’s expansive, sometimes frustrating prose invites such reflection. She writes about pretty much everything — from sovereignty and the Cold War to truth and reconciliation. It’s a somewhat giddy roller-coaster ride. The last part of the book is a moving meditation on American slave narratives and the associated discourses of reparation. In Canada, our obvious parallel is the treatment of Indigenous peoples, even if there was not always technical chattel slavery of these people.

I have a gifted former student, Joshua Nichols, now a double-doctorate professor of law at the University of Alberta, whose work shines light on the rolling and sometimes bloody hills of history. It happened that I met with Josh, after a long separation, just as I was digging into Azoulay’s book. His recent work concerns quite tricky constitutional arguments that show how Canadian law was influenced by nineteenth-century U.S. Supreme Court judgments concerning the treatment of American Indians.

Most of the latter history is infamous: unbridled westward expansion, the creation of real estate via the gridwork Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 for Manhattan, which provided a template for land grabs all the way to California, and so on. That is imperialism in action, supported by Cartesian geometry and a vision of non-white peoples as savages, indentured servants, or wards of the state — never as persons in their full right.

Things north of the border were better, perhaps, but not by much. Victorian monarchical largesse and the built-in Magna Carta curbs of English common law were helpful in restraining outrageous depredation a mari usque ad mare, but they did not prevent many examples of ongoing exploitation and enslavement. We are still coming to terms with these historical facts, now some 200 years in the making.

This has been a more than usually personal book review for me, but Azoulay encourages this kind of reaction. So, one final anecdote before I close the pages and, I hope, you might open them. In 2016, for the first time, I was called a “settler” by an Indigenous colleague.

I admit that I bristled. All four of my grandparents were born in either Scotland or Austria. My parents met and courted in Quebec City, where my grandfather was a stevedore on the docks. My other grandfather, the Austrian one, was a skilled bricklayer who helped build a college not far from my current office. My mother was a teacher, and my father served in the military with honour. I grew up considering us builders of this country, not settlers.

I related this later to Bob Rae, former leader of the Ontario New Democrats and the Liberal Party of Canada, whom I have long admired. He said, “Push back.” And I have — but not entirely or aggressively. Because those of us who are here by what amounts to the grace of First Nations should have their own grace to accept that fact. I am a kind of settler, and I am part of the large majority who want the imperial logic to end.

One last small tale, courtesy of my colleague Josh. He mentioned to me that, when the province of British Columbia was surveying land for demarcation, officials sent young men out into the bush to plant ribboned pegs marking off boundaries. One of those surveyors was discovered by a group of probably Squamish people. He was lost. They thought he looked tired and hungry. They gave him some food and hot tea, even as he went about the work of carving up their world. They aided him, and then, with infinite generosity, pointed him on his imperial way.

Azoulay’s book ends with a simple sentence, especially for her, that seems to me to capture the essence of this tale, recounted to me by someone who grew up in the North and then made his way to two PhDs and an accomplished academic career: “The potential is there.” Yes, it is.