Jean-Paul Baillargeon, editor - The Handing Down of Culture, Smaller Societies and Globalization


The Knight’s Move:
Reflections on the Translation of Culture/s

Michael Dorland*

The conference organizers have asked me to give something of a personal reflection upon my research. This panel addresses the cultural industries and, in the case of this presentation, from an “Anglophone” perspective. I am not sure what that is supposed to mean, “et encore moins étant donné ma citoyenneté française, mais c’est une autre histoire.” So let us say, to begin with, that it might mean that there is more to the question of the cultural industries than one might have imagined.

For the largest part of my academic career, which began in the late 1960s and has continued, with more or less long interruptions in journalism and a very short one in public relations, I have in one form or another been preoccupied with questions relating to the translation, transposition, movement or meanderings of political and social thought from one intellectual, often national, context to another. A first portion of my career was spent tracking how conceptions of socialism travelled from Germany to France, from Germany to Russia, and from Russia to China, as of the early twentieth century, via Japan. The middle portion has dealt with specific media artefacts such as film, the cultural industries, and media policy issues. The third portion deals with historical epistemologies in communication history.

The Russian formalist critic Viktor Schlovsky once remarked that the movement of ideas corresponds to “the knight’s move” in chess. In other words, it is not direct; it seems direct at first, then veers unexpectedly. An example is provided by the Russian Revolution itself. Undertaken on the gamble that the European proletariat would also rise up following the Bolshevik lead, and so provide the developmental basis for worldwide socialism, what occurred instead was “socialism in one country,” a very different scenario from that of the Marxist theory of stages of historical development. Similarly in China, what began as an urban working-class movement became the basis for the encirclement of cities by peasant guerrillas; an idea further modified by the Cuban and Latin American experience in which “self conscious” revolutionary intellectuals willed revolution into being through acts of armed struggle.

Whether social movements or ideas — i.e., communication in a broad sense — the trajectory tends to follow Schlovsky’s knight’s move. Why, McGill University semiotician Marc Angenot once asked, did it take 50 years for Saussure’s ideas to travel from Geneva to Paris, not more than a thousand kilometres in actual physical distance?

There is thus something deeply indirect about processes of cultural translation. The “cultural industries,” considered initially as a conceptual reflection on the capitalist industrialization of cultural production in its movement from singularity (the culture industry) in Adorno & Horkheimer’s perspective to its subsequent conceptual pluralization (as cultural industries) by often Marxist-inspired sociologists (Piemme, Miège, Flichy in France or J.-G. Lacroix, G. Tremblay and others in Québec) offer a rich case in point. And that pluralization has become even more complex given the so-called new media and their resulting technico-aesthetic modes of production and circulation. Further, if one thinks of the cultural industries as a complex of industrial practices, their translation from one national context to another, not to mention across industrial sectors, represents a formidable array of “apprentissages” in an impressive number of social and ideational realms. Thirdly, the sudden “engouement” of the Canadian or Québécois state in the 1970s for the policy idea of the cultural industries represents a further level of questions about the translatability of culture still worth examining in greater detail.

But I want to argue here, based on my most recent research, that these questions in the end have less to do with the cultural industries per se (or cultural policy per se) than with the broader “civil culture” that provides both the ideational and praxical matrix, or habitus in Bourdieu’s sense, for the forms and types of communicative interractions that then become possible — either enhanced or constrained. In the case of Canada/Québec, we are confronted with a civil culture of some complexity, and whose contradictory dimensions still remain largely unexplored. Here I will draw briefly on Maurice Charland’s and my recently completed book, Peace, Order and Good Government: Law, Rhetoric and Authority in Canadian Civil Culture (forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press).

Chapter 8 , continued >


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