The latest in the Culture/Theory series edited by Linda Hutcheon and Paul Perron, Manina Jones’s That Art of Difference: “Documentary-Collage” and English-Canadian Writing poses questions both Canadian and documentary: Where is here? What status does the historical document hold as a critical narrative tool or testimony? Where does the voice come from? What kinds of spatial, discursive, geographical and historical positionings are being mapped through documentary writing? Drawing heavily on poststructuralism, French feminisms and Bakhtin, with a splash of Foucault, Jones claims as her motivating interest the “distinctly textual energies of documentary writing—and the theorizing of the documentary—in Canada” (5). Her discussion takes as its starting point work done in Canada on the documentary, namely Dorothy Livesay’s oft-cited and well-nigh originary 1969 article “The Documentary Poem: A Canadian Genre” and Frank Davey’s work on recontextualization in the long poem. Jones’s main contribution to her predecessors is her introduction of the term “documentary-collage” to describe a narrative strategy whose closest aesthetic relative would be the printed ready-made. Her aim overall is to add to the already existing dialogue about documentary writing in Canada by further elaborating a vocabulary [End Page 865] consonant with the textual practices of “documentary-collage,” one that would both maintain an emphasis on the various uses of the “document,” while also recognizing the more material components of this writing, commonly associated with the visual art of collage.
Jones has gathered an interesting group of texts together, including such works as the found poem, Robert Kroetsch’s The Ledger, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan and Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic. As she argues, the varied and various strategies of documentary-collage contained within these works all move from the truth-telling premises of the monologic to the “truth-testing” textual apparatuses of the dialogic. Through the multiply-voiced, interwoven “documents” of these works—advertisements, photographs, historical records and manuscripts, dictionary etymologies, newspapers—emerge narratives whose structures undercut traditional notions of linear time or historical truth in their alternative and subversive emphases on mediation and materiality. It is this radical shift, as Jones will claim, that puts into play a “telling difference”; a difference that not only blurs the boundaries of fiction/reality, objective/subjective, determinate/provisional, etc. but also carries with it great political import—about subjectivity, time, and history.
As interesting as Jones’s material is, her readings and analyses do not always live up to their object of study. While many of her readings offer competent applications of given theoretical paradigms—in particular, the French feminist theories of Cixous and Kristeva and the narrative theory primarily of Bakhtin and Barthes—they tend to stop shy of ever interrogating the premises of these theories themselves. Instead, the specific uses to which Jones applies her version of the poststructuralist theoretical paradigm seem more often than not to verge on the anachronistic, rehearsing as they do insights that were (maybe) big news in 1976, notions such as the idea that the strategy of documentary-collage may serve to undermine the very nature of truth itself, or that we are all constructed by stories. This is old ground indeed, yet presented by Jones as somehow eye-openingly new (mostly through her over-use of italics). One last stylistic note: the book is plagued by worn-out poststructuralist puns that drove this reader (clearly!) to alliterative acrimony.
It seems that Jones’s project would be greatly enhanced by some more attention to work already done in film theory, work on montage [End Page 866] such as that of Vertov, Brecht, Godard et al. Were Jones to look beyond the parameters of French poststructuralism, it would seem too that Walter Benjamin’s work on the document might be quite useful to her project, given that he situates the document as the essence of montage and given that he, in keeping with the spirit of the Canadian writers discussed by Jones, fantasized about creating...