space and place

Early in his book, Place: A Short Introduction, Tim Cresswell writes:

“…place is not just a thing in the world but a way of understanding the world….But place is also a way of seeing, knowing and understanding the world. When we look at the world as a world of places we see different things. We see attachments and connections between people and place. We see worlds of meaning and experience…. To think of an area of the world as a rich and complicated interplay of people and the environment – as a place – is to free us from thinking of it as facts and figures…..At other times, however seeing the world through the lens of place leads to reactionary and exclusionary xenophobia, racism and bigotry. ‘Our place’ is threatened and others have to be excluded. Here ‘place’ is not so much a quality of things in the world but an aspect of the way we choose to think about it – what we decide to emphasize and what we decide to designate as unimportant.” (11)

I’ve started thinking a lot more about space and place recently. I think it’s related to my thinking through questions of nation and nationalism and imagined community, and all that messy stuff about inclusion and exclusion.

I’ve already been thinking of embodied identity and corporeal virtue in relation to my current SSHRC project, but as I further develop my ideas, I find myself moving into new terrain, terrain that won’t make it into my current book project, but that needs to be explored in a new field.

That’s both exciting and overwhelming.

But where I’ve come to has me thinking about what Sandra Whitworth, when she was here earlier in the fall, referred to as “narratives of national identity”; that is, the stories that nation-states tell about themselves and what those stories mean for those who make their homes within the boundaries of the nation-state.

Canada’s official borders, marked by territories and by degrees of latitude, define a space of gargantuan proportions. But the place that is Canada is much smaller. Shaped by histories of colonialism and later, by mass migration (both voluntary and forced), it is a place that resists easy identity making. There is nothing simple about the stories that make up Canada as place. Perhaps this is true of all national places, but it seems particularly pertinent in the case of a settler society.

What is it that transforms this massive space into a place to call home? And in the telling of our stories, our histories, our struggles, our joys, which stories do we tell, and why?

In elementary school, place-making came in the form of the “multicultural mosaic.” We defined ourselves by our interest in hyphenated others, by the foods and traditions that came together in Hawrelak Park on sunny August holidays, and in opposition to the American “melting pot.” There is much to critique about the implementation of multiculturalism in a Canadian context, but it is also true that a multicultural framework has allowed for the articulation of some stories that would otherwise never have been told. But increasingly, Canada-as-place is shaped more by its exclusions – by those who have not been granted the right to belong – than by its inclusions. The imagined community is growing narrower and narrower by the day.

Whose stories become part of a national identity? Which ones are left out? By what mechanisms are such stories suppressed? And what might this mean for those whose stories are ignored, silenced, forgotten?

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