Material Cultures in Canada ed. by Thomas Allen and Jennifer Blair (review)
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Reviewed by
Thomas Allen and Jennifer Blair, eds. Material Cultures in Canada. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. viii, 352. $42.99

The chapters in this book are wide-ranging in scope, offering perspectives that at once unsettle, even as they locate, what it means to study Material Cultures in Canada. Offering an important contribution to the study of material culture, the authors attend to objects that circulate within Canadian contexts, while tracing how such objects trouble the national boundaries that supposedly contain them.

The essays are divided into three parts, moving from a section on "Materialities," to "Immaterialities," and, finally, to "Materials of and for Spaces." As the reader progresses through each of the sections, the book's reflection on material things and spaces takes on increasing urgency. We are reminded of how "objects" such as beavers, geraniums, and Mary Maxim sweaters mediate intimate and violent histories of elision and colonization in the first section of the book. For instance, in "The Work of the Beaver," Jody Berland makes an insightful argument about the "beaver archive." As she points out, the beaver has come to represent the Canadian landscape in commercial imagery, while being excised from its life-sustaining "hydrological activities." Even as the stylized beaver signifies more than itself – its image, is, after all, closely associated with Canada – it is simultaneously detached from its architectural work in its natural habitat. Berland's analysis situates the beaver in the long history of territorial control enacted by British and French colonial rule: an "Indigenous animal," it has played an important role in the "biopolitics of colonialism." Indeed, a strength of the book is the way that the contributors historicize the material cultures that they trace.

In "Immaterialities," contributors Michael Epp, Thomas Allen, Nicole Shukin, and Rita Wong suggest different approaches to materialities that are also ephemeral. For Epp, entertainment for Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan brings together questions of "war, emotional labour, and material culture." He notes that the discourse of war converts innocuous, everyday things such as smiles and music into technologies of war. By [End Page 272] contrast, Allen examines competing understandings of modern time in his chapter; in doing so, he provides an insightful reading of the commodification of time. As Allen persuasively writes, time is "immanent in the material world: the most precise measurements of public time are now taken from the vibrations of cesium atoms, while the aging of our own bodies constitutes the most profoundly intimate experience of time, one that resolutely reminds us of our own materiality." The following two chapters both contend with aspects of our natural environment. Shukin suggests the importance of heeding Inuit forms of knowledge about climate change. Instead of treating climate change as a state of emergency, she contends, it is necessary to be attentive to the "mode of attention that the Inuit continue practising while confronting forces of attrition that slowly wear on the environment of life." This approach provides a broader lens through which to read climate change, one that takes account of "a longer history of Arctic incursions and exercises of sovereign power, as well as within a long practice of Inuit attention and adaptability." Wong concludes the second section with a crucial argument about the materiality of water; she makes a potent argument for thinking about where the water we drink comes from in order to recognize its sociality. As she writes, water "is constitutive of our own animated materiality and our sociality." The articles in "Immaterialities" are in poetic dialogue with one another and, in fact, time becomes a common thread to all: it plays a role in transforming the material into the immaterial (smiles, Arctic ice), while being given shape by material processes itself (clocks).

Taking a fascinating turn, the chapters in the final section foreground more explicitly the relation between space and material objects. This section includes readings of comic writer Seth's work, the vanishing landscape of small town life in Canada through Graeme Patterson's sculptures, and Iris Häussler's installation, He Named Her Amber, in the Art Gallery of Ontario. In her chapter, Carole Gerson explores how historic plaques "inflect historical consciousness" into a landscape. Her article...