Archive for the ‘Aboriginal’ Category

At an event I recently attended I was told that my dissertation was not considered feminist enough. My response, as I held my drink standing within the din of clinking glasses, was: “you’re joking, right?” Interestingly, the remark was made by someone who did not read my work but based their conclusion on my topic. My research project is an analysis of Louis Riel’s 1885 trial and the representation of the Métis leader by the nineteenth-century media and its present day implications. Beyond my ostensibly glib reaction, the remark raised several questions for me, which I am compelled to bring forward to create a conversation.

Aside from the intriguing fact that someone would suggest that my work concerning a Métis leader and his representation in the media is not feminist enough, even more curious is how exactly this reasoning was deduced? This is particularly troubling when considering the long-standing issues endured by Métis peoples in Canada and the continued violence against all Aboriginal Nations specifically with the ever present crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls – a consequence my research connects to Riel’s execution and the negation of Aboriginal sovereignties. Perhaps a more astute question is how could this work not be feminist?

While I accept all criticism as valuable, even more so than praise, this remark left me stymied. Granted my methodology for this specific project does not outwardly use a “conventional” western feminist approach (explained in my Introduction). Instead, my discourse analysis of the historical event applies a critical race and postcolonial approach as I utilize the scholarship, storytelling, and writings of Métis and First Nations scholars, including Riel. I felt this method was necessary because a western analytic framework could once again colonize the sovereign objectives and paradigmatic and contextual shifts Riel was undertaking. As a feminist scholar, I felt this was the most feminist approach to take.

What then does it mean to be feminist enough? Who am I proving my feminism to? Must my feminism be proved at all? Who is in charge of judging this? Are there guidelines, a rule book, an obstacle course, a code of conduct, a hazing ritual, a membership mandate, proof in the pudding, or a complex set of algorithms which will magically spit out gold coins revealing: “Yes, this is feminist … enough?”

Am I, or is my feminism, not enough? Bound with the short sighted evaluation of my work (or more specifically, its title) is an intellectual and proprietary hierarchy, which privileges an assumed power to dictate what feminism is, and with it also arrives (ironically) a distinct gust of patriarchy, no?


To me, if I may be so bold (as a feminist), the remark in many ways says more about the institutionalization of feminisms (plural intended), rather than my work as not being feminist enough. My work was shut down instead of opened up to consider all the possibilities. I was silenced and with this silencing so too was, once again, the contextual histories of the critical work at hand: issues concerning Métis sovereignty.

For the record, my research illuminates new scholarship concerning Riel’s advocacy for the rights and recognition of Métis and First Nations women and girls; his public condemnation of the Canadian government’s gender-based violence during the period; and the connection between the criminalization of Métis sovereignty, which culminated in Riel’s execution, with present day issues concerning missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The criticism I received was indeed extremely valuable as I continue my everyday feminist methodology: to question and to listen in order to understand and create conversations. I also look forward to bring this anecdote forward into the classrooms where I teach students who come with their own complex histories, and varied stories, and who are grappling with what it means to be a feminist.

I will listen to them in order to understand and to remain open to all possibilities.


Kim Anderson, Métis writer and scholar, explains that “Native women [have] historically been equated with the land.  The Euro-constructed image of Native women therefore mirrors Western attitudes towards the earth.  Sadly, this relationship has typically developed within the context of control, conquest, possession, and exploitation” (100). Emma LaRocque borrows from Sarain Stump‘s poetry in There Is My People Sleeping when explaining the significance of hearing the voices that break the violent continuity of this ever present colonial misrepresentation:

I was mixing the stars and sand
In front of him
But he couldn’t understand
I was keeping the lightening of
The thunder in my purse
Just in front of him
But he couldn’t understand
And I have been killed a thousand times
Right at his feet

“Culture forms our beliefs” as Gloria Anzaldua argues, and “we perceive the version of reality that it communicates. Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through the culture” (38). Stereotypes are not spontaneous phenomena; they require what John Durham Peters calls “the zone of intelligibility” (208) where a meeting of minds can take place – this takes time. But where does “the zone” or what Wilkie Collins used as his essay title, “The Unknown Public,” occur?  How does it happen? What are the power configurations at work and how are the images and their inscribed knowledge transmitted and what is their material and psychic impact?  When describing the representation of Aboriginal peoples in Canada’s nineteenth-century, historian, Lyle Dick explains “from the time of Confederation, the media has generated images of Canada, its constituent peoples and regions, exerting a wide-ranging impact on the country’s culture. To study these images, especially in the key period after 1867, is to witness the nation-state in the process of its ideological construction” (1).[1]


Plate 1

The nineteenth-century newspapers in America, Britain, and Canada were the most ubiquitous agent of popular education (Anderson and Robertson 2011; Benjamin 1968; Brake 2009; Burke 2005) and as such constructed events using established stereotyped colonial ideologies to organize a meeting of minds or “imagined communities” among strangers (Anderson, “Imagined” 6). European whiteness mobilized the stereotype of the so-called “wild savage” and held within it the noble, the child, the feminine, and the enemy. Nancy Black argues that to determine a sovereign state there must be an enemy and it manifested in the Western illustrated press into the figure of “The Indian” (130). Understanding that the nation’s communication systems were saturated with the figure of  “The Indian,” in its multiple formations, begins to address Daniel Francis’ question:  “How did I begin to believe in the Imaginary Indian?” (18).  Francis’s query opens further questions concerning the shaping of a national consciousness that contributed to a unifying ideology that Eva Mackey calls Canadian-Canadians (3) or as Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson describe as “imagined Canadiana” (9).

How then is the mythical continuity of a unified “Canada” ruptured in the 2013 counter movement Idle No More; moreover, how does the present leadership of Chief Theresa Spence disrupt (in her demand to speak with the Prime Minister of Canada concerning land, governance, social and economic policies) the historical national framework that has endeavoured to make absent and silence Aboriginal women and girls: (in)actions that continue to wage an ignored colonial violence against them, and even in the real and statistical atrocities, that mark the evidence of their missingness and murders, their names are erased. What violence then, it must be asked, does the Prime Minister’s refusal to speak to Chief Theresa Spence continue to advocate and authorize?

It was not surprising to read the biased article reported by the CBC, a Canadian Crown corporation owned by the federal state: “Review of troubled Northern Ontario reserve’s finances says federal funds spent without records” If the audit report, that the CBC coverage presents inaccurately, is actually read it is clear that the audit conclusions criticize, in fact, the federal government’s department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s (AANDC) management, or rather mismanagement, of the Attawapiskat funding. The media and its “timely” slandering of Chief Theresa Spence’s leadership is a stark reminder (if indeed one needs to be reminded) of the colonial strategies and stereotypes that continue to be deployed by the government through the media when they are confronted with acts of resistance.

The line of attack is not new. The foundational media strategy is rooted as far back as the c1493 Basel woodcut, “Epistola de insulis nuper inventis” [“Concerning islands recently discovered”], from Columbus’ letters and the advent of print production; yet, its stronghold, within the material and psychic spaces of growing nationalism and printing press technology in Canada, is made by the mid-nineteenth century.

In the July 16, 1885 edition of The Regina Leader newspaper, for instance, under the headline Telegraphic News – Ottawa  – “Supplementary Estimates Brought Down,” paper editor and owner, Nicholas Flood Davin summarizes the federal budget report for the North West; the article proves insightful particularly when bearing in mind the ignored petitions and the grievances brought forward against the federal government by the Métis peoples, Aboriginal Nations, and white settlers concerning not only land, but also the social anxiety and violence by increased and aggressive policing along with an upswing in the government’s implementation of irresponsible and malignant policies that created the foundations of inadequate health, economic, educational, and social systems on Reserves – issues demanded to be constitutionally addressed and recognized in the Métis Bill of Rights (1869 and 1885).  Sound familiar? The report includes the 1885 federal budget forecasting $250,000 earmarked to the North West Mounted Police, $50,000 toward land surveys, $660,000 for the CPR, and $6,000 to the “Half-breeds” (1). The report on one level reflects the government’s exclusive priorities: security, ‘acquisition’ of land, military transportation and communication technologies through the North West specifically adhering to colonial objectives, while on another appeasing the apparent needs and sentiments of the Victorian settlers by disseminating propaganda that security is enforced, land is organized, mobility and communication services are accessible, and that the Métis, with Riel charged with high treason, were, according to their the under-funding, “disappearing,” and the Aboriginal Nations (not allotted a funding budget line) were not present at all. It was the era of the “Vanishing Indian” and similar to the 2013 CBC coverage, the numbers were presented to do colonial ideological legwork. Conventional to the Leader’s format, the article is followed by a travel narrative entitled “The North West as, a Home, for the Small Farmer” and on the following page, the headline “The End of the Rebellion.”

In the same issue, the article “The Mounted Police – The Report of the Commissioner” replicates the geographical specialization of race, the implementation of government policies in the Indian Act, as well as how the policies were not accepted by the Aboriginal communities but were instead forced upon them in the issuing of discipline and punishment through state policing.  In the report, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald condemns “the indiscriminate camping of Indians in the vicinity of towns and villages in the North West … Indians should not be allowed to leave their reserves without a permit from a local Indian agent.” The report

pointed out that the introduction of such a system [The Indian Act] would be  tantamount to a breach of confidence with the Indians generally, inasmuch as from the outset the Indians had been led to believe that compulsory residence on reservations would not be required of them, and that they would be at liberty to travel about for legitimate hunting and trading purposes … that discretionary power, according to circumstance should be vested in the officers of police, was wise and sound … The camping of Indians near towns is an unmitigated nuisance, and if they are to be allowed to wander off their reserves without even the small check of a permit from the local agent, what is the good of having reserves at all?

Davin’s extract taken from the House of Commons invites his readers into the sovereign zone of intelligibility as it reinforces the mapping of racialized spatial hierarchies and authorizes “community” surveillance as a “wise and sound” method to maintain security while it segregates boundary lines between the civilized “towns and villages,” and individuals from Native communities as “unmitigated nuisance.”  Within the loaded colonial tropology of “if they are to be allowed to wander” metaphorically transfers as it reduces the Aboriginal population as deviant and must be kept confined and more specifically aligned with the state protocols of incarceration. In 2012, with the prison population overwhelmed with individuals of Aboriginal descent, the nineteenth government policy as a racist template continues to have catastrophic implications: “Aboriginal people are four per cent of the Canadian population, but 20 per cent of the prison population … one in three women in federal prisons is Aboriginal and over the last 10 years representation of Aboriginal women in the prison system has increased by 90 per cent.”[2] Moreover, the imperial euphemism of discretionary power issued by the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) elides the colonial violence in the rhetoric of security; the police did not protect the rights and interests of the Indigenous population but, rather, collaborated closely with eastern business interests who paid their salaries.[3] By 1883, 70% of the Métis and more than 50% of the Native English (“Half-breeds”) had seen the lands they occupied in 1870 patented to others mostly Ontario Orangemen newcomers.[4]

The public slandering of Chief Theresa Spence in the national media, and the Prime Minister’s explicit disrespect in his refusal to meet with her as a leader of a community, within the nation of Canada, that has not only been mismanaged by its federal agents (as identified in the audit report) but has also been sanctioned into a state of crisis because of the AANDC’s delinquent and negligent methods, reflects how Harper continues in the colonial footsteps of his nineteenth century Conservative predecessor.


Plate 2

There was another figure who led, with others, two movements of resistance, whose leadership was also disparaged in the press, and who articulated his response to the nineteenth century Canadian federal government concerning parallel issues that remain to be addressed in 2013. To follow is one instance among many:

The only things I would like to call your attention to, before you retire to deliberate are:
1st. That the House of Commons, Senate, and ministers of the Dominion who makes laws for this land and govern it are no representation whatever of the people of the North-West.
2ndly. That the North-West Council generated by the federal Government has the great defect of its parent.
3rdly. The number of members elected for the Council by the people make it only a sham representative legislature and no representative Government at all. British civilization, which rules to day the world, and the British constitution has defined such Government as this which rules the North West Territory is an irresponsible Government, which plainly means that there is no responsibility, and by the science which as been shown here yesterday you[] are compelled to admit it, there is no responsibility, it is insane. (Louis Riel, Prisoner’s Address, 1885)

The Idle No More movement is also not a recent phenomena but a continuum of 500 years of resistance. Perhaps then, in the news media’s eagerness and the government’s colonial anxiety that attempt to misrepresent and undermine, once again, Aboriginal peoples issues, demands and leadership, make evident just how powerful Spence’s counter movement, and a growing solidarity, is.

List of Illustrations

Plate 1
“Canada West” (c. 1923-1925)
Immigration Poster
Issued under the direction of N. James Alexander Robb,
Minister of Immigration and Colonization, Ottawa, Canada

Plate 2
Glenbow Museum.  Edgar Dewdney Fond.
“J.A. Macdonald to Dewdney.” Correspondence with Sir John A. Macdonald – 1878-1888.
Series 8. M-320-p.587. On-line.

[1] Dick, Lyle. Manitoba History, 48. Autumn/Winter 2004/2005. Web. April 30 2012.

[2] Carolyn Bennett. “Aboriginal People Need Solutions, Not More Jail Time.” The Huffington Post. December 11, 2012. Retrieved from

[3] Metis Culture 1875-1885.”1883.” Retrieved from

[4] Metis Culture 1875-1885. Retrieved from -

The Canadian “War Measures Act,” passed in 1914, is a sovereign order that decides the necessity of a state of emergency to authorize the government to suspend all civil liberties and by-pass parliamentary debate. The order, which defines sovereignty as well as “the enemy,” creates a no-man’s land or a state of exception where all laws, as well as constitutional formations are dissolved.  The sovereign, unconstrained by law, is thereby  able to implement military actions against the designated “enemy” and when decided, will act to reestablish order, civility, and “the norm”: “The sovereign must decide both that a situation is exceptional and what to do about the exception in order to be able to create or recover a judicial order when the existing one is threatened by chaos” (Schmitt xx).

The Act was implemented three times in Canadian History: during World War I with the represented threat of Germans and Communists (for instance, Leon Trotsky was arrested in Halifax), during World War II with the detention in Interment Camps of those “identified” as Japanese or others marked as spies, and in 1970 during the Quebec October Crisis which was sanctioned as “a state of apprehended insurrection” (a euphemism that only Trudeau could come up with).

In 1988, through the process of liberal democracy, the Act was repealed and replaced with “The Emergency Act. ” The change in the Act differs from the original in that it is now subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that a declaration of a state of emergency must be reviewed by Parliament.

With this said, it is crucial to understand what exactly sovereignty is and how it is defined by identifying “the enemy,”  by declaring a state of emergency, and more significantly its ability to make exceptions.

Carl Schmitt, a German legal and political thinker, who, although let’s face it has a rather unsavoury past, remains instructive when deconstructing the concrete meaning of sovereignty.  Schmitt defines sovereignty as “he who decides the exception” (5).  The sovereign has the absolute, dictatorial and unlimited quality of the decision.  Yet, the paradox of sovereignty is that the law is the judicial norm and without it the exception to it could not exist and thus nor could sovereignty. Therefore, the sovereign exists both inside and outside of the law. Schmitt’s political and theological touchstone is Thomas Hobbes and is reflected in Schmitt’s assertion that “the one who has authority can demand obedience – and it is not always the legitimate sovereign who possesses the authority” (xxxix).  The caveat is significant.

In an analysis of sovereignty Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy is also salient, particularly in a study of sovereignty’s many guises.  For example, a core tenet of liberal democracy is that power is to be checked by power.  This is made evident, for instance, in the change in the War Measures Act and the move to demonstrate and “show” its citizens that the government is accountable to and for the public’s safety.  However, with the sovereign’s exception in mind, how then does the Canadian Emergency Act, as law, really function and how is it implemented and against whom?  It is indeed difficult to believe that an Act that determines a sovereign’s force has only been declared three times? How then does the Act manifest in Canada and what are its latent enforcements?

But first consider examples of legislated States of Emergency in a comparison between  Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution (which Schmitt had a hand in producing) and the Canadian “Declaration of a Public Order Emergency”:

If, in the German Reich, public security and order are considered disturbed or endangered, the Reichspräsident may undertake necessary measure to restore public security and order, and if necessary my intervene with the aid of armed forces.  For this purpose he may suspend, temporarily, in part or entirely, the basic rights as provided in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153. (Schmitt xivi)

and the Canadian “Emergency Act”:

(1) When the Governor in Council believes, on reasonable grounds, that a public order emergency exists and necessitates the taking of special temporary measures for dealing with the emergency, the Governor in Council, after such consultation as is required by section 25, may, by proclamation, so declare.

2) A declaration of a public order emergency shall specify
(a) concisely the state of affairs constituting the emergency;
(b) the special temporary measures that the Governor in Council anticipates may be necessary for dealing with the emergency; and (c) if the effects of the emergency do not extend to the whole of Canada, the area of Canada to which the effects of the emergency extend.[1]

(1) Nothing in a declaration of a public order emergency or in any order or regulation made pursuant thereto shall be construed or applied so as to derogate from, or to authorize the derogation from, the control or direction of the government of a province or a municipality over any police force over which it normally has control or direction.

(2) Where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is used or employed in a province or municipality pursuant to an arrangement under section 20 of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act, subsection (1) applies in respect of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, subject to the terms and conditions of the arrangement.

Present in both Acts is the word “necessary” which ultimately is deemed by the sovereign alone.  The move from legitimate to dictatorial is indeed slippery.

Interestingly, in 1914 the Canadian sovereign State ‘s “War Measures Act,” similar to Germany’s Article 48 “State of Emergency Act,” was used against Germans in Canada.

The police action against protestors in Montreal poses an interesting contemporary example, among a league of others including continuing resistances by Aboriginal nations against the federal government, and post 9/11 surveillance, detentions and torture.  Does the sovereign state make exceptions to the rule of law by circumventing the legislated “State of Emergency” when it decides what action is necessary to maintain public “safety”?  What nuanced tactics does it use to maintain order when dealing “with an emergency,” and to demand obedience? Does the act of giving the police force additional power without parliamentary review, or being subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, form an exception that by-passes the messy implementation of the Emergency Act and most certainly public scrutiny?  What is the norm? Is the enemy always already a subject who counters not only the laws of civil conduct but also anyone who resists the sovereign’s order of obedience?  Schmitt would say yes and so would Hobbes. It is therefore important to understand the prerogative of the sovereign’s political authority; its Machiavellian exponents, as well as its ongoing power to make exceptions to laws; and more crucially to be aware of the liberal democratic guises that shroud the beast of sovereignty.

[1] Canada. Department of Justice. “Declaration of a Public Order Emergency.” See Act in its entirety at

Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Trans. George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Humans are odd beasts especially when confronted with acts of transgression.  When, for example, a rogue force unhinges the ideological glue that was so carefully applied to “fix” a specific social narrative.   Unpredictable. Unorthodox.  Dangerous.   Three words that share a commonality among Green Eggs and Ham , Mein Kampf, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover along with thousands of other books that earned the status of banned.

But what exactly does it mean when a book is banned?   The banning of books has a long reach in history including Thalia  by Arius in 250 AD and more recently Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto’s Fist Fight in Heaven.

The etymology of the word ban is from Old English bannan or “to summon, command, proclaim” or from the German bannen “banish, expel, curse” and originally from bha “to speak publicly.”  In the late 14th century, Old Norse banna was “to curse, prohibit … to speak or a threat.”  In Old French ban was “outlawry and banishment” and the Germanic root is “banish, bandit, and contraband.”  Implicit in the word’s language formation is the circulating power between, among, and within both the sovereign and the outlaw.

But how does it slip from the strategic minds of those who mark an object as outlawed or as banned that they are actually highlighting an already existing discourse and by branding it with the Scarlet Letter provokes instead, as if by magic, a desire for it?  Hawthorne’s book, by the way, was also banned.  An outlaw, of course, is a misnomer in that by marking something or someone as transgressor or “outside of” they remain always and more potently “inside” as a threat to the status quo.  The Panopticon it seems, in its social architecture, will imprison those who watch and those who are watched.  To ban is to recognize and to authorize an object’s power – it has the power to change to shift to effect to affect.  The book is an object, a container filled with ideas and actions that are already circulating and have been circulating in other networks: from kitchens, to alleys, to libraries, classrooms, pubs, bedrooms, fields, living rooms, emails, graffiti, canvasses, music, t-shirts or no shirts,  footwear, theft, charity, hacking, poisoning, hair styles, marginalia, picket lines, fires, buses, marches, leaving, bearing witness, to undocumented silences that say so much more than that which lies between any published covers.  Why then is “the book” so dangerous?  Perhaps because it forces individuals to slow down as explained in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:  “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly”(9).

The written word is proof. Permanent.  A testament. An entry point. Social evidence. Militaristic in its very technology.  A public declaration.  Gutenberg did not only unleash the medium of print production but also a material potential of mass distribution to an unknown public, as Wilkie Collins categorized the growing demographic when criticizing nineteenth century penny press readers, who could escape marshaled codes of conduct by transgressing, without surveillance, in their own imaginations and their own will to think about stuff.  Censorship is a state praxis of population control that enables fallacies such as unification, democracy, and security by delineating “the enemy” be it in a book, individual, group, or nation, but alternatively it also earmarks distinct and very real anxieties operating through and through social systems.

The recent banning of books in Arizona relating to Mexican-American history along with cutting Ethnic Studies by the Tucson Unified School District is an example of a very real social and political anxiety and fear that manifests in the 1,951 mile long barrier wall that travels across the U.S. Mexican border.  It remains unsurprising that the state of the wall is called Operation Gatekeeper and that Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is among the books on the state’s banned list.  Freire espouses a teaching philosophy that encourages students to think critically and for themselves by removing social hierarchies and educational barriers.

To ban anything or anyone by any measure makes socially explicit the relevancy and power of that which is cast out, while simultaneously revealing the fear and anxiety of those who dictate the order.  The book is an object filled with static visual codes that are animated in the act of reading and thinking:  a potentially dangerous action when individuals are left to their own devices to interpret words and meanings for themselves (The Reformation remains a significant example) or call into question state narratives held in place by a vast range of ideologies. Alas, what the history of book banning does make evident is that illicit books will be read and evaluated regardless perhaps to a greater degree than books that enter the status quo unchallenged.  Humans are odd beasts especially in their desire to know (and more dangerously) that which they are forbidden to know or to do which includes the reading of the banned and the outlawed because it lets loose, especially in the unwatched confines of the mind, our desires, transgressions, and fears.

[T]hough all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? (Areopatitica, John Milton, 1644)

Among the titles included in the recent Arizona school banning is Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  The figures of Prospero and Caliban have undoubtedly released yet another post colonial allegory in Mexican-American relations, as well as inject new meaning into Caliban singing:  “Ban, Ban, Ca-Caliban” (2.2.).

Other notable banned books include:

All Quiet on the Western Front (Enrich Maria Remarque, 1929)

Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)

Areopatitica (John Milton, 1644)

Black Beauty (Anna Sewell, 1877)

Candide (Voltaire, 1759)

Catch 22 (Joseph Heller, 1961)

The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003)

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939)

Big River, Big Sea – Untold Stories of 1949 (Lung Ying-tai, 2009)

The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th century)

The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank, 1947)

A Feast for the Seaweeds (Haidar Haidar, 1983)

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1973)

Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss, 1960)

The Country Girls (Edna O’Brien, 1960)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (D.H. Lawrence, 1928)

Mein Kampf (Adolf Hitler, 1925)

July’s People (Nadine Gordimer, 1981)

The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka, 1915)

American Psycho (Bret Easton Eillis, 1991)

The Rights of Man (Thomas Paine, 1791)

Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller, 1934)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)

Operation Dark Heart (Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, 2010)

The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer, 1948)

Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs, 1959)

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties (Areopatitica, John Milton, 1644).

It’s as simple as this: I found your letter in a bread box, a paper folded lengthwise three times. A missing page, Oma, with your voice pressed on tissue blue writing paper – the same colour as the sea it crossed over.  A paper folded in between love letters, divorce papers, and a pencil sketch of a ship’s graphite lines fading into fog. The letter is a story, a mother’s mother’s story.

I always see you standing right there: your back to me in your small kitchen on Havenstraat in Holland. Your waist is wrapped with your long white tea towel. Stained with the colour of meals. You lean into the counter, feet slippered. You’re chopping something (but I can’t quite see what) and a pan simmers smoky the smell of cooking onions and garlic and trassie memorized on my tongue. The back screen door is open and the hanging green blue copper batik fabric is tied back to let in a cool summer breeze and your five, no six dogs, in. Misha, your old black lab, pushes heavy into your leg, that’s all, just a push and walks nails across floor into another room.

You don’t know I’m here, do you? How could you know that I am here, now, with all these things on my lap, listening to something written, something that comes in from the outside and waits

for your back to turn, our mouths to speak.

On March 12, 2008, at the Robert Gill Theatre in Toronto, I spoke with Guillermo Verdecchia about his play Fronteras Amercianas (American Borders) and its relationship to memory, theatre, and the archive.  To follow is an excerpt from the interview and from his play.

The end of the US-Mexico fence in California

GV: The play started as a letter. I went back to Argentina many years ago as I was traveling. I was figuring out what this experience … a stranger in a place that in some ways was very familiar of this notion of a return home, this notion of trying to make sense … of where I lived, imagined, or some interior way I always felt that I wasn’t fully here and part of my imaginary and part of my memory was situated elsewhere. I have a memory that was passed from generation, from my family collective and culture that doesn’t sit well with the collective or social memories that are found here, in Canada or North America. This experience of being dislocated and yet knowing that returning to Argentina was the solution … it was the experience of returning and feeling, “Oh my god.” So in returning there was this working through it. That is where the play comes through, on one level. On another, it is comes from what it means to be an American, to be on this continent. What are the modes of being on this continent? Who gets to speak? Who represents who? (“Interview”)

Fronteras Americanas is a one-person show about a man divided by cultural borders that manifest in the live theatre of cultural memory through timelines, multimedia, and physical and emotional journeys home. In the play, Verdecchia is the “straight guy” against the anti-hero, Wideload, a constructed hyperbolic array of stereotypes designed to deflate defamatory archetypes through shrewd and witty commentary on culture and sentimental departures (Karenda 10). Verdecchia sees his character(s) as a border-line, as a conflation of space in the pop and political culture, not so much as a binary but as a negotiation, a working-with and through in order to reveal the violence, as well as the amnesia that is bracketed in racist representations. As “a direct descendent of Tupac Amaru, Pancho Villa, Dona Flor, Pedro Navaja, Sor Juana and Speedy Gonzalez, Wideload is the reveal that Verdecchia is after in his work ” (Verdecchia “Fronteras” 23). Wideload is a manifestation of the popular archive or “the store,” a space that “sustains power” as it disseminates through mass culture the representations of Latino American culture, specifically male identity.  Borders, geography, and body are articulated in the process of theatre by Verdecchia’s transgressing and foraging from multiple archives.

American Borders

In Archive Fever, Derrida reveals the assumed veracity of the constructed catalogue or “that there could be no archiving without titles (hence without names and without the archontic principles of legitimization, without laws, without criteria of classification and of hierarchization, without order and without order, in the double sense of the word)” (40). The notion that there could be no archiving without titles delineates the process of classification, and the subsequent power in how material is made and not made accessible, and who decides.  The archive, in its very structure of bordering off culture through authorization and classification, stratifies the object, subject, and culture. Verdecchia is clear that the archive creates and orders privilege:

GV: I could go to the library and get things out or I could go to the Research Library and look stuff up … that’s fantastic; however, it is not the be all or the end all of knowledge, or of understanding, or the ways of knowing. The problem of course is that we have, or the West or generally in the world, we’ve validated a certain kind of knowing … we validate … the archive over embodied … knowing, not transmitted through writing: “That’s not really a document! But if you had a letter, if you had a letter that would be really good.” And of course that raises a lot of historical questions because up until a certain point in our history most people couldn’t write, so those documents that were extrapolated from a culture … are only the elite strata of a culture … because those were the 10% or less of the people who could actually write things down.” (“Interview”)

What is culturally privileged as archival ironically doesn’t necessarily represent what was or is. Matthew Reason argues that theatre provides a challenge or a resistance to the authoritative “permanency” of the archive:  “stage detritus presents an ‘archive’ able to create and recreate the multiple appearance of the performance. In the accumulation of these traces it is as if an immediate archive of the production is established: here is the shaky and incomplete evidence of what happened” (88). Where then does the archive of theatre exist if it is “shaky and incomplete”? Diane Taylor suggests “the West has forgotten about the many parts of the world that elude its explanatory grasp. Yet, it remembers the need to cement the centrality of its position as the West by creating and freezing the non-West as always other, ‘foreign,’ and unknowable. Domination by culture, by ‘definition,’ by claims to originality and authenticity has functioned in tandem with military and economic supremacy” (Taylor 12). The “freezing,” then, is a project of the institutionalized archive to maintain “the object” for supremacy that ultimately serves the economic and capitalist payoff in the form of Cultural Property Certification and the issuing of the federal tax receipt to the donor, who once again represents a small, yet powerful, elite. It is in the theatre, then, where there is a melting of the “freezing” of objectified culture, the live and living performances of its various formations in all its shaky detritus.

GV: That is one of the things that attracted me about the theatre was that it left no traces. There was something about that [aspect] that really appealed to me. I love the temporality … the flaring up like a light and then it’s gone. It’s very anti-archival, but you know, I wish I could make something to point to. Like, ‘I made that bridge!’  Instead, I make the thing that happened for a few hours, for a few weeks.” (“Interview”)

As both a scholar and a playwright, Verdecchia utilizes the archive, as well as performance to put pressure on the cultural, and institutionalized “keeping” of information. By couching his performances with multimedia, he is able to access other sites of memory, other public archives that have become naturalized into the contemporary Western lexicon of representation.

GV: Part of my process is that I have to know everything before I can write … I’ve got to assimilate to get to the beginning of what I want to get to. The timeline is an idiosyncratic history … I’ve chosen preposterous markers that appeal to me … part of the timeline is … the dialogue between history and art … I come back and forth between certain historic events and its construction of history and how it is meaningful to me.
SM: There is also a safety with the timeline, right?  A collective comfort?
GV: I do want to unsettle it [the comfort] … there are markers that should be known … or that there were cities being built in 5,000 BCE.   Like Das Kapital … it’s not a marker that we would stick into a cultural timeline … it’s kinda rude to mention Marx or capitalism but I stick it in … right next to Confederation … and it’s the utter absurdity of history. (“Interview”)

The absurdity of history through its agents, as Verdecchia states, are the keepers of the archives who categorize by way of massive reduction the “key” moments in time. Reason’s argument about the impossibility to capture “live” theatre in the archives echoes the inability to capture the “live theatre” in everydayness. Archives at best act as a filter through which most of what is passes (84-5). The filter managed by institutional mandates, then, has the “sustained power” to decide what cultural memory is and what is forgotten.

Gloria Anzaldúa, in “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” insists “that borders are experienced primarily as psychological conflict, and those who wish to negotiate them experience a kind of dual identity” (63). The borders, she remarks, are not translatable in the natural world: the skin of the earth is seamless. / The sea cannot be fenced, / el mar does not stop at borders” (“The Homeland, Aztlan” 3).

Verdecchia is haunted by his cultural memory “it still speaks to me” and begs as Marcellus implores Horatio: “Thou art a Scholler, speake to it, Horatio” (Hamlet 1.1.51).  Verdecchia dares to speak to the phantom; however, he departs from Derrida’s assertion that the phantom is to have the last word” (39). The haunting that Verdecchia cannot fully articulate draws in another level of archive: the body, his DNA. Theatre becomes a space in which the archive is activated, a fluid dispersal of polyphonic (re)memory, concrete documents that are enacted on the stage through the process of body, the articulation of the archive, without sea walls, and remain unpredictable.


The anxiety that haunts Verdecchia and informs his work as an Argentinean is the cultural trauma of the “thirty thousand disappeared who were tortured and murdered, ten thousand were women, hundreds of them pregnant. They were killed as soon as they gave birth. Their children, born in captivity, were also disappeared – not killed, in this case but adopted by military families (Taylor 169).

GV: It’s part of my memory, my cultural memory. It’s a significant part of my memory where … I live it. I would have been exactly the right age to be on the receiving end or the giving end. My family was almost entirely untouched. I have friends who were disappeared. My identity and my memory and that experience of political experience … that is a significant part of my … self imagining as a Latin American and that’s a bit weird and a bit troubling … There is something about it that’s not great … that’s not right … and that is what this moment speaks to. I wanted to see. I wanted to be close to the … it’s a hoary trope … Those are horrific and stupid cliques and what do you know, I subscribe to them. It’s a big part of my imagination. It’s complicated.

The following is an excerpt from Fronteras Americanas (American Borders). Verdecchia listened to this music, a Tango, Verano Porteno, Astor Piazzolla, over and over again while writing this section of the play.  The Tango remains in the play as a stage direction. I suggest (because I’m bossy) that you play the music and read the section out loud:

Let it “flare up like a light and then it’s gone.”

[Music: Verano Porteno, Astor Piazzolla]

It is music for exile, for the preparations, the significations of departure, for the symptoms of migration. It is the languishing music of picking through your belongings and deciding what to take.

It is two a.m. music of smelling and caressing books none of which you can carry – books you leave behind with friends who say they’ll always be here when you want them when you need them – music for a bowl of apples sitting on your table, apples you have not yet eaten, apples you cannot take – you know they have apples there in that other place but not these apples, not apples like these – You eat your last native apple and stare at what your life is reduced to – all the things you can stick into a sack. It will be cold, you will need boots, you don’t own boots except these rubber ones – will they do? You pack them, you pack a letter from a friend so you will not feel too alone.

Music for final goodbyes for one last drink and a quick hug as you cram your cigarettes into your pocket and run to the bus, you run, run, your chest heaves, like the bellows of the bandoneon. You try to watch intently to emblazon in your mind these streets, these corners, those houses, the people, their smells, even the lurching bus fills you with a kind of stupid happiness and regret – Music for the things you left behind in that room: a dress, magazines, some drawings, two pairs of shoes and blouses too old to be worn any more … four perfect apples.

Music for cold nights under incomprehensible stars, for cups of coffee and cigarette smoke, for a long walk by the river where you might be alone or you might meet someone. It is music for encounters in shabby stairways, the music of lovemaking in a narrow bed, the tendernesses, the caress, the pull of strong arms and legs.

Music for men and women thin as bones.

Music for your invisibility.

Music for a letter that arrives telling you that he is very sick.

Music for your arms that ache from longing from wishing he might be standing at the top of the stairs waiting to take the bags and then lean over and kiss you and even his silly stubble scratching your cold face would be welcome and you only discover that you’re crying when you try to find your keys –

Music for a day in the fall when you buy a new coat and think perhaps you will live here for the rest of your life, perhaps it will be possible, you have changed so much, would they recognize you? would you recognize your country? would you recognize yourself?” (58-60)



Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Living Languages: Contexts for Reading and Writing. Ed. Nancy       Buffington, Marvin Diogenes, and Clyde Moneyhun. New Jersey: Blair Press, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.  Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: UCP, 1996.

Reason, Matthew. “Archive or Memory?: The Detritus of Live Performance.” NTQ. 19:1 (Feb 2003).

Taylor, Diana.  The Archive and The Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas.  London: Duke, 2003.

Verdecchia, Guillermo. Fronteras Americanas (American Borders). Talonbooks, 1997.

… , Interview with Sorouja Moll. Personal interview. Robert Gill Theatre, Toronto. 12 March 2008.

“Augustine” is not her name:  she was named by the institution. At 15, Augustine was left at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris in 1875 by her mother; she had already endured the brutality of sexual abuse throughout her young life. Augustine’s “hysterical attacks” had begun at the age of thirteen when, according to her testimony, she had been raped by her employer, a man who was also her mother’s lover.  When admitting her to Dr. Jean Martin Charcot’s “care,” Augustine stated that her perpetrator had threatened her with a razor (De Marneffe 88).

Musée de la civilisation, bibliothèque du Séminaire de Québec, fonds ancien.

I found Augustine in an essay by Elaine Showalter. She was mentioned briefly as an example of the cultural (re)production of the Shakespearean figure of Ophelia. Instead of reading through the passage, I paused to ask a simple, and as it turns out complex, question:  who are you?  Reading Augustine as a victim would have been possible; however, it would then not have allowed me to extend how I might begin to understand or hear what she might have been saying.  Her documented “hysterical” outbursts in her household were her objections to domestic violence, and her contained, managed and documented hysteria in response to the brutality and humilation she endured, along with 5,000 other girls and women, within another institution (the asylum),  I read as a discourse of resistance.

The project came to life as Tatiana and I walked home one winter’s night in Montreal:  we were talking about, oddly enough, hysteria.  We began to imagine, as the snow fell, three vertical frames that would be projected onto a wall and represent a figure’s response to Charcot’s violent reinvention of hysteria while he was director at the Salpêtrière asylum for  women in France. The figure inside each of the projected border-frames depicts the intra-activity, enfolding, and struggle with object, other, and self.

"Invention of Hysteria" by George Didi-Huberman

Our preoccupation with hysteria and how, as an ideology, it is associated with the body through varying forms of social and medical performances, could be combined through the disciplines of theatre and video art to explore the scenographic and the spatial, among others, and their relationships to power and agency.  What does hysteria mean?  How is it possible to represent hysteria when we have come to know it only through representations?  How can we translate the untranslatable? How could theatre provide a space to articulate the struggle held within these questions and potentially open “the word” for further inquiry?  These are the questions we continue to ask.

“The sign,” as Jacques Derrida asserts, “represents the present in its absence … .When we cannot grasp or show the thing, state the present, the being-present, when the present cannot be presented, we signify, we go through the detour of the sign ….The sign, in this sense, is deferred presence” (9).  In a similar way, Artaud speaks about the struggle of language when deciphering life:  “When we speak the word ‘life,’ it must be understood we are not referring to life as we know it from its surface of fact, but to that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach” (13).  A young girl named Augustine, therefore, is both Derrida’s “deferred” and Artaud’s “fluctuating center.”  For the installation, we are exploring, in different ways, the language found in theatre or, as Artaud suggests, “that which is half-way between gesture and thought” (89). As an iconic image of hysteria, Augustine was entered into medical discourse through Shakespeare, theatre and images, and those symbols still feed into how we come understand the “signs” that detour us from that which can never be reached – the being of hysteria, resistance and ourselves.

Charcot used patients like Augustine to represent hysteria to international audiences including physicians, writers, artists, scientists, and scholars.  All patient interviews were transcribed.  It is in Charcot’s transcriptions of Augustine, where he represents her in his “theatre of medicine” as Ophelia-like, that her uncontained silence reveals her explicit resistance to his scientific model of hysteria.  This is where I heard Augustine’s resistance: in her found monologue, a young woman resisting the institution of medicine:

"Je Suis Augustine" by Sorouja Moll and Tatiana Koroleva (actor: Myriam Suchet)

What do you know about medicine? … I don’t want to feel you near me!

Augustine’s hysteria was a disruption of a patriarchal and institutionalized force that unified a discoursive structure which continues to govern how the female body is represented.  The video installation is an attempt to open the opportunity to discuss how the intra-disciplinary practice of theatre and video art, as well as its historical and contemporary architecture could be disrupted to a/effect space, location, geography on character/actor/identity; how historical locations remains spatially present; how borders, borderlands, and liminality in theatre/performance is a process of resistance against the violence of institutional geography, history, religion, borders, and ultimately leads to, when recognized, the (re) construction of sovereign forces and engagement among the performing present absent body and space.

"Je Suis Augustine" by Sorouja Moll and Tatiana Koroleva (actor: Myriam Suchet)

I won’t uncross my legs! … Oh! You really did hurt me ….

No, you won’t manage! … Help! … Camel! Lout! Good-for-nothing! …

Pardon me!  Pardon me, Monsieur!  Leave me alone …. It’s impossible! …

(IPS, 11:146-146) [1]

"Je Suis Augustine" by Sorouja Moll and Tatiana Koroleva (actor: Myriam Suchet)

After years of being held against her will by Charcot and after her many attempts to escape the institution, one morning Augustine dressed herself as a man and walked out of the front doors of the asylum into the streets of Paris.

[1] Didi-Huberman, Georges. Translated by Alisa Hartz. Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere. Massachusetts: MIT, 1982. 83.

NB:  for a reprise, or more on “this nothing’s more than matter” see my Feb 1, 2011 entry “This nothing’s more than matter”: Joan of Arc, Ophelia (and those who transgress).

Like most mornings, Mo and Max’s silent unblinking feline stares woke me up. Four green eyes.  Powerful stuff.  An optic nudge. The cacophonic-type loudness (slant pun, yes, caterwauling is too easy) of their eye-balling is, I argue, far more jarring than any bedside alarm clock.  After a 3-minute stare off, a futile roll-over that ended with a steely pinprick penetration into my bedhead-ed skull – I relented, as they rollicked the hallway to present their awaiting dishes.  My anti-aubade made me think that not only was I out of coffee, but about the power in silence.  Silence.  The gap.  The in between-ness in which there is “nothing” but everything in the world: “This nothing’s more than matter” (Hamlet 4.5.168).

Instead of Hamlet, I reach for The Tempest and the hard quiet present within the absence of Sycorax (Caliban’s mother) who was brought to a remote island, between Tunis and Naples by sailors from Argier (Africa).  Even here before Scene One, I cannot escape the screaming silence/defiance of Sycorax upon that ship.

Shakespeare’s disenfranchisement of Sycorax, and her son Caliban, symbolizes the European colonizers’ othering of non-Europeans to validate Prospero’s possession of the island.  The tropological move to cast Sycorax as demonic is, as Hayden White suggests, “the idea of the wild woman as seductress, like that of the Wild Man as magician, begins to merge with medieval notions of the demon, the devil, and the witch” (167):  “Hast thou forgot // The foul witch” (1.2.256-7).  Sycorax is physically absent from the play, dispossessed from her land, and represented without a voice.  Here, Sycorax is excised into a state of exception (Agamben, 2005), as bare life, outside of that occupied by the civilized woman, Miranda. This gendered and colonial methodology is reproduced across the range of Shakespeare’s writings and interconnect into 19th century Western social structures, including the media, which makes use of this crucial trope that, for example, Aboriginal women in Canada continue to challenge today while being manipulated and subordinated.

Note the similar posturing among Prospero et al in the film trailer

Giorgio Agamben argues that to define “state of exception” is challenging and ironically its ambiguity facilitates multiple applications particularly in the understanding of totalitarian agendas (State of Exception, 1). Is Prospero totalitarian? I am interested in this ambiguity and “that the law itself … and therefore a theory of the state of exception is the preliminary condition for any definition of the relation that binds and, at the same time abandons the living being to law,” a space between the juridical order and life (1):

This damned witch Sycorax,
For mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible
To enter human hearing, from Algiers
Thou know’st was banished. For one thing she did
They would not take her life.  Is not this true? (1.2.265-269)

The subject within this space is silenced – it is not just a coincidence, then, that the reconstruction of the racialized feminine other, Sycorax, is also silenced.  However, to be muted is not to be without power:

“This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother” (1.2.334).

Julie Taymor directs the newest film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s final plays. Helen Mirren stars as Prospero. Interesting.  I’m looking forward to seeing it and … listening.

… there is a clementine, a cup of green jasmine tea, two cats, and the word Trauerspiel. From this odd catalogue, I’d like to begin with the “mourning play” because, well, I think it is as good a place as any to begin.  In “The Origin of German Tragic Drama,” Walter Benjamin describes Trauerspiel as being unlike Tragedy which is rooted in myth, and instead finds its difference by being grounded in history (16).  But what exactly is the work that needs to be done to separate the mythical out from the historical or the transcendental from the material?  This blog is not necessarily rooted in the 19th century, but it is a site of rupture from which oranges, tea, and the feral, as well as other possible tangents might emerge…

“The drama, more than any other literary form, needs a resonance of history” (48)

And don’t get me wrong, I agree that this would seem, at first glance,  a rather morose way to send off a blog on its initial voyage:  “go and play in sorrow and stuff!”  But of course there’s more going on here.  Benjamin insists that Tragedy is performed in silence whereas the Baroque Trauerspiel is anything but that : it’s rather noisy.  Tragedy does not need an audience.  Trauerspiel demands one.  What happens when the silence sewn up in Tragedy is ripped open to reveal all the historical threads?  More directly:  to hear them:  “For how justified are we in accepting that what people describe as tragic as tragic” (38). What happens to Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar when they are read through this Baroque lens, as Benjamin suggests? And further, what happens when these plays and their ubiquitous themes (power, betrayal, and love) are adapted into 19th century media, People magazine, in trial and state execution transcripts, and detention sites, etc; what happens when the sovereign and beast are no longer dichotomized but are one?  What does the Trauerspiel, in its very “primal leap” into being or Ursprung, give us access to?

Indeed this is where the task of the investigator begins, for [they] cannot regard such a fact as certain until its innermost structure appears to be so essential as to reveal it as an origin (46).

And for Benjamin, as for Foucault, Dilthey, Derrida, Spivak, and for all curious and questioning beings:  this is an endless task …