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  • Contesting Bodies and Nation in Canadian History ed. by Patrizia Gentile and Jane Nicholas
  • Matthew S. Wiseman
Gentile, Patrizia and Jane Nicholas (eds.) – Contesting Bodies and Nation in Canadian History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. Pp. 428.

Contesting Bodies and Nation in Canadian History aims, as pointedly noted by editors Patrizia Gentile and Jane Nicholas, “to position the contested body as another category of analysis towards understanding both Canadian history and the nation” (pp. 3). Within this volume is an assortment of essays from well-established and emerging scholars that approach embodiment and body history through the utilization of a diverse methodological kit. Bodies have long intrigued scholars interested in Canadian history, but mostly as abstract vessels through which other topics have been explored. The novel contribution of this collection derives from its engagement with the process of embodiment and materialization of the body, defined not as a conduit for change but as maker (and unmaker) of change itself.

Many theorists such as Marcel Mauss, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler provide the analytical framework upon which many of the authors in this volume situate their research. While other approaches differ, each chapter explores fluid conceptualizations of the body and nation in a Canadian context. In part one of three, “Contesting Meaning(s) of Bodies and Nations,” authors investigate the impact of the body and embodiment in the production of knowledge. First amongst a great selection is Kathryn Harvey’s first-hand account of her archival experience as a doctoral student. Harvey’s archival and sensory reading of her subject David Ross McCord’s written and material record fostered in her the understanding that “history is made through bodies, both alive and dead,” and it is therefore the challenge of the historian to bring “somatic awareness” to the process by which bodies experience “every state identified with the human condition” (pp. 32-34). In recognizing the somatic presence of her own body as well as that of her research subject, Harvey’s essay introduces novel and exciting aspects to our understanding of historical objectivity and archival methodology. Barrington Walker and Amy Shaw also deliver interesting examinations, interpreting the body through discourses of race and masculinity respectively, while Gillian Poulter broaches the subject of cultural appropriation in an intriguing essay on Indigenous sports in nineteenth century Montreal.

The remaining two parts, “(Re)fashioning the Body” and “Regulating Bodies,” comprise the majority of the volume. In these sections and not unlike the first, authors insert material bodies into their analyses. Essays cover a range of topics, including: representations of the body in fashion (Myra Rutherdale and George Colpitts), art (Pandora Syperek), dance (Allana Lindgren), advertisements (Cheryl Krasnick Warsh and Greg Marquis), and beauty pageants (Mary-Ann Shantz and Tarah Brookfield); as well as bodily regulation of “obese” children (Wendy Mitchinson), medical women (Valerie Minnett), Second World War women (Helen Smith and Pamela Wakewich), the working class (Anne Frances Toews), and postwar working women (Kristina Llewellyn and Bonnie Reilly Schmidt). Positioning the contested body as another category of analysis, these essays explore the ways in which social constructions combine with discourses [End Page 810] of nation in the making and unmaking of bodies, and attempt to demonstrate the role of embodied materialization in the formation of national identities. They also stress, as convincingly pointed out by the editors in the exceptional introduction to this volume, that categories of embodiment like gender, class, race, sexuality, age, and health “shape and define the nation as well as ideas of what the nation is and who is reflected within its often-singular representations” (pp. 10).

Mutually cohesive in tone and purpose, each essay contributes to an argumentative framework that challenges conceptualizations of Canada. Defined by Gentile and Nicholas as a mythological “monolithic national community,” the conceptual nation examined in this volume, is imagined and lived largely through the experiences of White, heterosexual, and middle class Canadians (pp. 4). Situated in a colonial context, where embodiment is interpreted through power relations and the mechanisms of imaginary corporeal identifiers, the nation-state and its typified puppeteers bear the brunt of thorough research and potent analyses. The volume is not without its limitations, however. In a...


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