New Paper: “Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question”

My recently-published peer-reviewed paper, “By Nature Fram’d to Wear a Crown: Decolonizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question” (Brief Chronicles V) is now available on the University of Winnipeg’s WinnSpace Repository. The paper argues that the marginalization of the Shakespeare Authorship Question (or SAQ) in most universities did not originate — nor is it reproduced — solely in the politics of the academy, but rather in the imperial nature of the broader culture, in particular within the totalizing, essentialist and self-aggrandizing rhetoric concerning the “natural genius” of both “the West” and its paragon, William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Postcolonial readings of early Shakespeareana and contemporary defenders of Western imperialism demonstrate how the routine invocation of “Nature” as an  explanatory metanarrative for both was the intellectual keystone justifying the the European-dominated global order of the colonial era, and the corresponding privileged position of the white race.  Both the colonizer and the biographically chimerical Shakespeare himself (being a foundational element of colonial education systems) were thus removed and protected from ontological scrutiny.

While decades of postcolonial scholarship have largely deconstructed this Western chauvinism within most academic discourse, owing to its taboo status no such critical, structural examination of the true identity of Shakespeare can be permitted, leaving in its original form one of the last bastions of Western exceptionalism. Using a postcolonial lens to interrogate the cultural assumptions underlying the centrality of Shakespeare’s supposed identity to the West’s flattering self-identity can aid us in charting more reflexive, critical scholarship in this field. Absent this decolonized perspective, however, Shakespeare studies programs are implicated in perpetuating a barely-recognized legacy of colonialism.

[Special thanks go to Brief Chronicles editor Roger Stritmatter for making my article available during the journal’s embargo period].

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Book Review: John Ralston Saul’s “The Comeback”

“What is more contemptible than a civilization that scorns knowledge of itself?”

John Ralston Saul’s provocative question from the opening pages of his 1995 book The Unconscious Civilization resonates in his equally provocative but flawed new book The Comeback, in which Saul portrays a nation deliberately scorning self-knowledge by treating the aspirations of indigenous peoples with obstructionism and neglect.

Led by a new generation of academics, artists, lawyers and politicians (whom Saul refers to as “a new elite”), indigenous people are reclaiming and reshaping their identities, and with them, that of Canada itself.

However hard Ottawa resists, argues Saul, the paternalistic status quo that has long dominated indigenous issues will no longer be tolerated: indigenous Canadians are compelling our country to evolve. Responding to this is the “great issue of our times.”

The Comeback consists, in equal measure, of Saul’s praise and admiration for indigenous Canadians and his alarmed dismay at the corrosive impacts of the Conservative government’s use of omnibus bills to ram its agenda through Parliament.

Saul’s powerful manifesto is both conversational and brief, delivered in 20 rapid-fire chapters across 176 pages; the remaining pages comprise a valuable and fascinating compilation of annotated historical and contemporary writings — including recently published articles by Winnipeg’s Wab Kinew and Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair — intended to demonstrate the consistency of indigenous political messaging across the centuries.

Saul’s own messaging, however, is not without shortcomings. His exhortations to [his] readers — “we,” “us,” and “you and I” — assume non-indigenous readership; Aboriginal people are referred to exclusively in the third-person: “them,” “they,” “theirs” and so on.

Kinew and the producers of the CBC series 8th Fire avoided this pitfall by speaking equally to all races. That Saul’s book speaks about, but never to, indigenous Canadians raises the question: did Saul actually talk about this project with any of the leaders he dubs the “new elite” to gain their insights — or to learn if they even wanted to be referred to in this way?

It seems unlikely. Everything about The Comeback — its non-descriptive title, its voice, its tendency to frame events in terms of their relationship to Euro-Canadian history and politics, rather than their indigenous contexts — cries out for an aboriginal co-author, or at least some quoted informants.

For example, the resurgence he describes is widely recognized in indigenous circles as having been foretold in the “Seventh Fire” prophecy (often invoked during the Idle No More demonstrations), regarding the rebirth and rekindling of the Anishinaabe people, and the choice we will all face to either follow the ancient wisdom or continue along our present path of destruction. Framing the book on this prophecy would have greatly enriched and indigenized his argument.

Instead, Saul’s exclusionary rhetoric, unconscious or no, undermines the book’s otherwise progressive and sympathetic intentions.

Michael Dudley is the indigenous and urban services librarian at the University of Winnipeg. Miigwetch to Shannon Bear for her valuable insights for this review.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2014 G9

Colonizing Subject Headings

Teaching a library instruction session in global politics the other day, I was soliciting topic areas from the students, one of whom wanted to research the conflict in Gaza. I suggested that we could narrow this down to Canada’s position on the conflict, and he was amenable. I suggested the use of the Alternative Press Index (API) and very swiftly came across a fascinating and instructive case of biased subject headings.

The 2013 Canadian Dimension article, “Gaza: Resisting Canadian complicity, rethinking solidarity” is a brief editorial describing how “Israel and Canada are joined together in deception” in framing Israel’s “slow massacre” of Gazans as “the right of self-defense.” The authors summarize the then-recent Operation Cast Lead this way:

Israel launched disproportionate, deadly attacks on Gaza in 2006, 2009 and 2012. There is substantial evidence that Israel initiated the violence and then used the counterattack to justify deployment of the most advanced delivery and weapon systems, including banned unconventional weapons, against the captive civilian population unable to escape total bombardment. Israel’s first military tactic is always to destroy essential infrastructure, leaving the entire population without the electrical power needed for cooking, sewage, water purification, heating or life-saving medical equipment.”

The article, which clearly sides with the Palestinians and opposes Canada’s unqualified and enthusiastic support of Israel, is indexed in API using the following API-derived subject headings:

canada — foreign policy
ethnic cleansing
gaza
israel — politics
israel and the palestinians
israeli-occupied areas
palestine

Anyone reading the article — regardless of their politics and sympathies — would likely agree with most of these headings, in that they accurately describe the contents. The one exception would be the use of the term “Ethnic cleansing”: the Library of Congress does not recognize the Subject Heading “Ethnic cleansing,” preferring “Forced Migration” or “Population Transfers” — rather passive terms which are also used in cases of natural disasters, removing a sense of agency. In this case, “pro-Israel” readers and the Library of Congress would not admit that what Israel has imposed on the Palestinians qualifies as “ethnic cleansing.”

Because API does not contain the full text of the article we were linked to EBSCO’s MasterFILE Premier, where we discovered that the same piece was assigned these Library of Congress headings:

PALESTINIANS
TERRORISM
COUNTERTERRORISM
WEAPONS systems
CIVILIANS in war

The contrast in indexing is remarkable; it is difficult to believe that these two sets of assigned headings are describing the same article. While the use of “Palestinians” and “Civilians in war” is hard to dispute, it is noteworthy that the indexer could not even admit that the article was about Gaza. More jarring still is that, what the authors of the article describe as a “horror” and “massacre” is seen by MasterFILE as “Counterterrorism”, with the previous heading assuming that Israel was responding to “Terrorism.” For an article that focuses on the injustices experienced by Gazans and the political collusion by which that suffering is delegitimized, the emphasis on “Weapons systems” is astonishing. A researcher would be forgiven for thinking these terms were leading to a Jane’s publication.

The LC Subject Headings assigned to this article in MasterFILE do not, in fact, adequately summarize the contents; indeed, they actively seek to disguise them, by framing the violence described in the article as justified, when the intent of the authors was precisely — and clearly — the opposite. Indeed, the indexing perfectly demonstrates the very “deception” the authors decry. It is not too much to say that such practices are a form of what postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak calls “epistemic violence,” an act of intellectual colonization.

For the purposes of the class, I was glad to have stumbled across this article and its contrasting treatment in two different databases, for it illustrates the way that the terminology used by indexers not only contributes to supporting dominant, “official” narratives and precluding others — and thereby reinforcing permissible debate — but, on a more practical level, might potentially prevent the interested researcher from discovering the article at all.