Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Stephen Henighan

Part of a series of reviews, old and new, about reviewing, Canlit, and crotchety criticism.
[First published in The Danforth Review]


A Report on the Afterlife of Culture
by Stephen Henighan
Biblioasis, 2008

So it turns out that Stephen Henighan's apocalyptic view of Canadian culture is based on a vision of the apocalypse:

By 2050, wars and famines induced by the scramble to seize dwindling sources of water, food, oil and electrical power will have reduced the world's population to about one-fifth its present size; the people who survive will be living at a level of comfort roughly equivalent to that of medieval Europe. ... [G]iven that we may only have a dozen years of rabid consumption left, it's difficult not to pose the question[: what will happen to literature?] ... In the world of 2075, the struggle for survival through basic agriculture may have reinstalled the gift of concentration to the point where, if people have any leisure time, or light to read by in the evenings, they may be more disposed to the pursuit of literature than we are today (321-322).

It's hard to know what to make of this. If we only have a dozen years left before the collapse of civilization, the prescient among us will surely soon turn away from literature and start hosting workshops on getting back to the land and setting ourselves free. Henighan quotes Virginia Woolf: "The merest pebble on the beach will outlast Shakespeare." Then adds: "Plangent and personal when they were written, these words encompass our collective condition today."

Steven W. Beattie in Quill and Quire (May 2008) lauded Henighan's "willingness to say the unsayable, and his enthusiastic piercing of the balloons of Canadian literary pretension." He also noted: "Henighan frequently lays himself open to charges of paranoia ... and is prone to sweeping generalizations." I concur with this summary, but as Henighan would surely agree, it's the details that matter most.

The primary point of A Report on the Afterlife of Culture, as I see it, is a lament for the loss of specific, local detail in Canadian literature in particular -- and artistic products world-wide in general. This is the other apocalypse Henighan wants us to see: The clear-cutting and Disneyfication of local cultures around the globe.

What is "the afterlife of culture"? Henighan illustrates the concept by telling a story of Japanese tourist killed by Mayan villagers. The tourist was taking photographs. The villagers thought he was stealing the souls of the children. More significantly, Henighan wants us to see what the tourist represented: the outside world, modernism, liberal capitalism. The camera was, in this way, the tool of soul-destruction (not capture). The "image," amplified through the centuries by technology (from illuminated manuscripts to stained glass windows to TV, etc.), continues to erode local (verbal) cultures. The local, Henighan asserts, is lost: We live in its afterlife.

Like the Whos down in Whoville, the Mayan villagers could not stop Christmas from coming. [ed. But it wasn't the Whos who wanted to stop Christmas, it was the Grinch. February 2010.] But the story of the Mayan villagers doesn't end with singing. The Mayan's lose the ability to conceive the world in their own language. As their culture struggles to come to terms with modernity, they suffer massive existential angst. Their young people commit suicide in droves. The story ends with the domination of the Grinch: The United States of America. More specifically, liberal capitalism. This is one of Henighan's sweeping generalizations. International capitalism and the USA are, in Henighan's view, the same thing.

International capitalism is destroying the planet and the USA seeks to extend the assumptions of its culture to the rest of the globe, erasing local distinction and cultural diversity in the name of economic efficiency. The killing extends even to spelling.

To state the spelling question in terms of British versus American is to misunderstand it. Canadian writers long ago forged distinctive spelling conventions. The question is why ... these conventions are fraying. ... [This is] evidence in microcosm of a culture that is being forgotten (238).

It is over four decades since George Grant's Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965). Hengihan, strangely, doesn't evoke Grant's legacy, even as he reprises his lament. Grant examined Canada's slip into the liberal capitalist influence of the USA in the context of the defeat of the Diefenbaker government. Specifically in the context of Diefenbaker's refusal to allow US nuclear weapons into Canada. Henighan's analysis, however, is built on a more recent foundation: NAFTA.

Some generalizations of my own:
  • Henighan's longer essays are better than his shorter pieces. The shorter pieces tend towards dogmatism. Perhaps the form encourages oversimplified argument, which the longer essays allow Henighan to avoid.
  • Henighan's sharp dismissal of T.F. Rigelhof as the exemplar of the "degeneration of the culture of literary criticism" is as distasteful as the poor criticism he is attempting to uproot. The piece argues Rigelhof writes consistently sunny (i.e., uncritical) book reviews, then ends by noting "his only full-bore negative literary review." The book was by Bryan Demchinsky, "not coincidentally the editor who dropped Rigelhoff as a reviewer at the Montreal Gazette." And the same Demchinsky thanked by Hengihan on the acknowledgements page of The Afterlife of Criticism.
  • Henighan's argument is underpinned by his explanation of the relationship between literature (the books) and the publishing industry (the means of production). I find Henighan generally convincing on this point. Roy MacSkimming's The Perilous Trade, however, illustrates that the Canadian publishing industry had been around many deep curves well before NAFTA, online bookselling, and the dominance of the Chapters/Indigo chain. The industry is in constant flux, and to read recent changes as signally the beginning of the end times is ... um, apocalyptic.
  • Also, Henighan devotes little space to examining the regional nature of most small presses in Canada. He desires more emphasis on the local, yet that is exactly what most small presses in Canada do (with government support...).
  • Similarly, Henighan's analysis of the history of the novel is socio-historical. His readings of the novels of Latin America (the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez et al) are informed, for example, by his critique of global capitalism. This approach is illuminating -- and Henighan's scope is often remarkable. However, his approach underplays other aspects of the development of the novel, such as narrative and language technique, about which I wish he'd said more.
  • One of the strengths of this book is Henighan's global connections. He is well-travelled as well as well-read. The Afterlife of Criticism speaks to a global audience (while maintaining the local specificities of its Canadian roots, of course). I don't know of another recent book of Canadian literary criticism that accepts the challenge of globalisation (globalization?): Both the economic and cultural streams. Henighan treats CanLit within the context of WorldLit and attempts to discuss CanLit in real-time, historical context.
  • What does this last sentence mean? Well. On the one hand, Henighan's grapples well with the influence of global capitalism and culture, which is the leading force of change in our world, afterall.
  • On the other hand, Henighan engages the reviewers and critics of his previous book When Words Deny The World. Hengihan's battles with Michael Redhill, Lisa Moore and Russell Smith are reprised here, for example.
  • It's disappointing, however, that Henighan finds it "difficult to think of one [reviewer] that engaged in any depth with the [previous] book's central aesthetic contention." When Words Deny The World, Hengihan says, received 30 reviews: Not one "engaged in any depth with the book's central aesthetic contention"? This reads like egotism and serves to isolate Henighan from the community he is critiquing.
  • Isolation, however, appears to be Henighan's main operating mode. He recounts how agents attempted to groom him to be "the next Mark Kingwell," following the release of When Words Deny The World and how he resisted their overtures. He has, in other words, remained uncontaminated by the forces of global capitalism against which he is fighting the good fight.
  • I imagine a poster above Henighan's computer of Joe Strummer.
Some final words from Henighan:

Let the local resonate! Listen to the rural local and the urban local and all their points of interconnection. The vast changes that will overtake us once the oil and water run out may mire us in local life. Now is the time to forge our aesthetic of the cosmopolitanism on our doorstep (339).

London calling to the faraway towns
Now that war is declared-and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls
London calling, now dont look at us
All that phoney beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we aint got no swing
cept for the ring of that truncheon thing

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
London is drowning-and I live by the river

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