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North of Empire: Essays on the Cultural Technologies of Space

North of Empire: Essays on the Cultural Technologies of Space

by Jody Berland
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2010
408 pp., illus. 33 b/w.  Trade, $89.95; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4288-5; ISBN: 978-0-8223-4306-6.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Written by the editor of TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, this book is a major contribution to the theoretical and methodological innovation of the cultural studies field. Despite the very local focus of the work –Berland’s topic is Canada–, one can already be sure that it will play a major role in the reconceptualization of the discipline, curiously abandoned since more or less a decade. Much work has undoubtedly been done in cultural studies in these years, but with very few theoretical and methodological innovations. North of Empire is a good example of what a renewed interest for the dialogue between theory and practice in cultural analysis may signify –and why it’s a good thing to go back to the basic stance of what cultural studies is standing for.

The specific input it offers is the result of three converging moves. First, the emphasis on the material media properties of the works and practices under analysis. In this regard, one can only welcome with great enthusiasm the great interest for the medium of radio, that most forgotten of modern media. More generally, however, what matters here is the foregrounding of the technological aspect of culture, not just in those aspects that can only beg for such an approach like for instance the weather forecast or map-making, but also in cultural goods and uses that seem to downsize the importance of technology, such as jokes and painting. Second, the study of the discursive and other networks in which these media objects are involved. The ‘local’, that is ‘typically Canadian’ theoretical insights that Jody Berland will be discussing in this respect are a more than necessary improvement of some ‘global’, i.e. ‘typically American visions of cultural analysis. Third, the critical and very often self-critical and ironical view of what identity mean. Needless to say, this self-criticism is exactly what Berland is missing in much critical thinking in cultural studies. None of these perspectives may be very new in itself, but the way Berland manages to put these strings together in a solid theoretical yet analytically astute knot deserves all our admiration. Moreover, she is also a talented writer, with a great sense of humour as well as a sharp tongue always eager to spit her venom on the ‘becoming empire’ of her own country. (As a Belgian reviewer who belongs to a country as split as Canada, I regret of course that Berland does not delve a little more in the ongoing cultural wars between the two major linguistic communities, but it would be unfair to claim more from a book that gives us already so much).

The most encompassing innovation of the book is its reinterpretation of the spatial turn in cultural studies (and of which Hardt and Negri’s Empire can be seen as a belated example). Contrary to most studies that have foregrounded the tension between centre and periphery, metropolis and colonies, the East and the West, etc., Berland makes a plea for a much more material and medium-oriented reading of spatiality, emphasizing on the one hand the role of medium technology and on the other hand the importance of material routes, networks, communication tools and services. Rather than indulging in overwhelmingly abstract and generalizing speculations on nations and postcolonial cultures, Berland tries to see how nations are indebted to communication structures and vice versa. In short, space, in Berland’s thinking, helps describe ‘the connections between politics and culture’ (p. 14).

Chapter Two of the book, a critical rereading of the almost forgotten Canadian media theorist Harold Innis, an author perhaps as important although unfortunately less influential, at least abroad, as Marshall McLuhan, should be compulsory reading in all cultural studies classes of the whole word. Thanks to Innis, Berland can articulate a useful innovation of the discipline, with less weight on culture as representation and more room for culture as communication (in the sense of materially realized and performing networks of goods, people, and ideas), while offering also very inspirational thoughts on allegedly well-known concepts as frontier, nation-building and limits.

With bitter-sweet irony, the author opens her book by explaining the difficulties she had in finding a publisher, and the time and painstaking efforts it took before an ‘Empire’ press accepted this volume that gathers the best essays she wrote since more or less 20 years. All the essays are still as fresh now as they were at the moment of their first publication, and one can only say that it is a terrible pity that voices like those of Berland have so many difficulties in getting a captive ear in the cacophony of the modern academic debate.


Last Updated 16th August, 2010

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