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  • North of Empire: Essays on the Cultural Technologies of Space
  • Jan Baetens
North of Empire: Essays on the Cultural Technologies of Space by Jody Berland. Duke Univ. Press, Durham, NC, U.S.A., 2009. 408 pp., illus. Paper. ISBN: 978-0822343066.

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 be sure that it will play a major role in the reconceptualization of the discipline, curiously abandoned for more or less a decade. Much work has undoubtedly been done in cultural studies in these years, but [End Page 176] with very few theoretical and methodological innovations. North of Empire is a good example of what a renewed interest in a dialogue between theory and practice in cultural analysis may signify—and why it is a good thing to go back to the basic question of what cultural studies stands for.

The specific input the book offers is the result of three converging moves. First is 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 in 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 respects that can only beg for such an approach, for instance, weather forecasts or map-making, but also in cultural goods and uses that seem to downsize the importance of technology, such as jokes and painting. Second is 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 discusses in this respect are a more-than-necessary improvement on some "global," that is, "typically American," visions of cultural analysis. Third is the critical and very often self-critical and ironic view of what identity means. Needless to say, this self-criticism is exactly what Berland misses in much critical thinking in cultural studies. None of these perspectives may be very new in themselves, but the way Berland manages to put these strings together in a solid theoretical yet analytically astute knot deserves our admiration. Moreover, she is also a talented writer, with a great sense of humor, 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 into the ongoing cultural wars between the two major linguistic communities, but it would be unfair to ask more from a book that already gives us so much.)

The most encompassing innovation of the book is its reinterpretation of the spatial turn in cultural studies (of which Hardt and Negri's Empire can be seen as a belated example). Contrary to most studies that have foregrounded the tension between center and periphery, metropolis and colonies, East and 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 throughout the 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...


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