Book Review: Feeling Canadian by Marusya Bociurkiw
Review by Kayley Viteo and Nadine Desrochers
Feeling Canadian: Television, Nationalism and Affect by Marusya Bociurkiw
In Feeling Canadian, Marusya Bociurkiw tackles the difficult and often frustrating topic of Canadian identity. The author begins, as many academics have done before, with Molson Canadian’s 1999 Joe Canadian advertisement. This popular culture reference serves as a starting point for an analysis that links cultural and nationalism studies, affect theory (among others), and an overwhelming amount of personal memoir. Bociurkiw’s work yields a wide-ranging book that often strays from its initial objective: to explore Canadian television and national practices from 1995 to 2002. Her main thesis, that cultural products reproduce “Canadian” narratives at the expense of less visible cultures (i.e. First Nations and immigrants), is further weighted down by an unclear and scattered theoretical framework.
The author tackles a number of Canadian issues, including the dominance of the United States, multiculturalism, First Nations, Québec separatism, and immigration. Flipping between trauma and affect theory while never leaving the cultural studies or nationalism fields, Bociurkiw jumps from Foucault to Derrida to Bannerji to Deleuze and Guattari, sometimes in one breath, further peppering her text with extensive quoting of academic work. In so doing, Bociurkiw achieves a measure of quantity, but no overarching theoretical grounding. By varying the lens so often within one argument – rather than placing paradigms in opposition to one another – she builds a labyrinth of references, allowing her to take many turns, but leaving the reader disoriented.
Feeling Canadianis structured over seven chapters, beginning with the relationship between television and the nation before embarking on a qualitative content analysis (though this is never explicitly stated) of specific television narratives: the Québec separatist movement, Canada: A People’s History, Loving Spoonfuls, the Trudeau funeral, and coverage of both 9/11 and the Olympics, among others. She bookends her work with the 1995 referendum as a gestational soap opera and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics as a demonstration of fascism, veiled truths, and commercialism.
Although theoretical quotations and claims of affiliation abound, there is no discernable sense of why and how Bociurkiw makes her choices or performs her analysis. Her arguments are further undermined by her lack of explanation of the traumatic impact of each of these cultural products on the national stage: for while the political and emotional effects of the 1995 referendum may be palpable still, the traumatic nature of the drama series North of 60 demands justification beyond the author’s opinion. The parsimonious and disparate sampling she makes of “representative” television shows further distracts from the essence of her book, in which “feeling Canadian” boils down not so much to her avowed dichotomy of shame and pride, but to an unfeasible quest.
Perhaps the most contentious point of the book is the unabashed rooting of the analysis in the author’s personal anecdotes. From Bociurkiw’s assertion of her own father’s “fierce diasporic nationalism” (45) to the Ouija boards of her childhood (110), the focus on Ukrainian representation in the series A Scattering of Seeds (72), and the poetic homage to a departed loved one (135), she explores the effects in her own life of this incapacity to belong. This personal investment does provide some accessibility into the text, and a portion of it is welcome. However, Bociurkiw’s reliance on storytelling as a means of building her argument is repetitive, often confusing, and overshadows her broader social conclusions.
For example, in her chapter entitled “National Mania, Collective Melancholia,” Bociurkiw filters Trudeau’s character through a “queer” label that lacks contextual definition but that she applies to herself as she reflects on her own being during an elevator ride (24). Bociurkiw uses the term queer to qualify anything that goes against the grain, restricting its meaning to a political concept while deliberately ignoring its roots in identification (40) – except, seemingly, when applied to herself, as per the elevator incident. Though she connects this to nationalism by situating queerness as a practice that shapes the normative sense of belonging through structures of difference, this loosely defined relationship is a light justification for Bociurkiw’s description of Trudeau as an effeminate caricature. Bociurkiw then attempts to build an argument linking the nation, affect, and Trudeau, based upon a baffling foundation of her own experience of basement makeout parties. This is quickly followed by a discussion of the uses of melodrama. Ironically, it is Bociurkiw’s Feeling Canadian that is heavy with melodrama - inescapable for the reader, and a shadow over every chapter.
Due to its solid, if overused, bibliography, Feeling Canadian works as a personal interpretation of the Canadian nation, as well as an overview of various affect, nationalism, and cultural theories. However, Bociurkiw never clearly answers her own question of how a sense of being Canadian is transmitted back and forth between screen and audience, leaving this up to the reader. Finally, the title and introduction are misleading: first, because the strongly intimate texture of the book is not announced; and second, because it is very unlikely that this book will give anyone a sense of “feeling Canadian.”
Bociurkiw, Marusya. 2011. Feeling Canadian. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.