Monthly Archives: November 2008

Tales of the Village Fool

Here in Quebec, a new Christmas film just came out.  Called Babine, it is based on the stories told by a very famous storyteller (yes, this is a culture where traditional storytellers can become big stars).  The stories are a mix of archetypal myths, local legends, and melodrama and are set in a real village, but in a imaginary time.  The main character is the village fool, who is wrongly accused of burning down the village church.  Other characters include the woman who has been pregnant for twenty years, the farmer who raises flies, the Old Priest and the New Priest (the villain).

What I find so interesting about the film and the stories (some of which I have heard) is that they are so clearly ways of imagining an ideal (time-out-of-time) local world.  Quebec has worked very explicity towards greater openness, and twoards promoting immigration.  As in many places, this has created tensions around who is a Quebecer and what Quebec culture means.  But as much as Babine explicitly imagines a settled, French-Catholic interpretation of what is Quebec by focusing on the village and church as opposed to the hunting camp or river (and certainly not to the Algonquin village), it also does some less insidious cultural work.   This kind of story, where grand myths play out in a real local place, helps people re-imagine belonging to somewhere in particular. In a post-modern reality of balancing multiple identities, it provides a simple pre-modern idea of belonging to where you are.  Furthermore, it suggests that great human dramas and inspirations come from those places, and belong to them even as they develop universal themes.

Of course many people don’t want to go and live in villages.  And people who live in villages are also connected to other people in many places, telling stories and making myths and negotiating complexity.  Quebec and Canada are more diverse and urbanized than ever, with all the complexity and promise that that implies.  But as the trope of the network society loses its luster amid financial collapse and postmodern ennui, films and stories like Babine are imagining the local as the place to belong.  We should attend to the promise – and pitfalls – of this cultural turn.

Montreal Book-blog: from John Ralston Saul to Net Neutrality

I’m holed up in icy Montreal waiting for a visa from the UK home office.  To keep myself occupied, I thought of blogging every day about what (and why) I’m reading.  So here’s the first installment.  If the weather keeps up like this, there could be many more – at least until I get to go home!


I devoured two John Ralston Saul books this week:  The Collapse of Globalism, and A Fair Country:  Telling truths about Canada.  These could be read sequentially:  after outlining how globalism fails, Ralston Saul presents a solution in his address to Canada’s elites.  Basically, the premise (oh so prescient) is this:  the system of globalism attempted to reduce society to economic terms, and in doing so, applied market logics so broadly that they ceased to be useful.  The principle of governance, so essential to democracy, was replaced with the principle of management.  Ralston Saul traces these principles, and the broader ideology of globalism,  through phenomena such as trade agreements, changes in intellectual property laws, and the privatizing of the public sector. He concludes by describing a potential of a return to nation-states, but notes that we should still be wary of “negative nationalism.”

The Collapse of Globalism brings together so many of the observable consequences of globalism that it would be tempting to say that it anticipates the current correction financial systems (which is also a crisis in governance and regulation) and the ensuing failure of trust in these systems and regulations.  But it doesn’t, really.  Instead it outlines in broad terms some of the things that I’ve observed in more focused situations:  frustration with the “it’s out of our hands” market ideology of globalism can provoke an identification with a more contained identity.  This could be national, local, or cultural.  In its negative form, such small-scale identifications confound our relationships with the other (Ralston Saul talks a lot about the other) and intensify conflict.  Positive nationalism, on the other hand, reflects “a renewed and growing desire to build our societies at all levels with our own hands – that is, to find ways to be involved”.

This is just one resonance in this book with what I’ve observed happening in grassroots (and not-so-grassroots) groups.  In response to a failing system, we can be remarkably ingenious in developing something better – if we build on our strengths.  This is exactly what Ralston Saul addresses in his next book, where he argues that Canada has been neglecting its third founding pillar – the First Nations.  The result of this has been the development of a colonial mindset and the divestment of many of the country’s resources through increased foreign ownership.  He entreats Canada’s elite (that would be you) to break out of complacency, and restore the sense of this country as a place where negotiation is valued over quick solutions, and where the founding principles of Peace, Welfare, and Good Government return.

You’d like to know how?  Well, one good way would be to lobby the CRTC to stop Internet throttling.  In a clear example of short-sighted management/market ideologies, Bell Canada has appealed for the right to continue to throttle P2P applications on its network, even as it begins to prioritize its own audio and video content.  SaveOurNet.Ca has more information.

Canada already has the most consolidated media companies in the world.  What’s more, its status as an internet leader is in sharp decline.  Why?  Because the telecom companies don’t want to invest in delivering the “last mile” of connectivity to homes and businesses.  Their construction ends at the neighbourhood loop level.  All the more reason for muncipalities/communities/neighbourhoods to invest in local networks.

Whew!  I got all the way from globalism and Ralston Saul back to local broadband.  I must say, it’s been fun.