Barry Callaghan and the Invention of Cultural Studies

First published in Barry Callaghan: Essays on His Work, ed. Priscila Uppal (Toronto: Guernica, 2007), pp. 452-62.


On September 1, 1972 I got married—one most astonishing piece of good fortune—and several days later, started work in my first full-time teaching position: Assistant Master at Centennial College of Applied Arts and Technology, one of the first of Ontario's new community colleges. The place was a converted munitions factory on Warden Avenue, in the east end of Toronto. Teaching load: sixteen hours per week in the classroom, with four classes of twenty-five to thirty students apiece, and an additional four hours weekly in the English Department's “writing laboratory,” a combined emergency and orthopaedics ward to which students came for help with their deformed or shattered syntax. Add to that whatever time I spent in office hours with students from my four classes, plus the time required to prepare my classes, and also, finally, the time I would have to devote to my students' fortnightly writing assignments.

On top of all this, I took on a second job, starting a week later in that same auspicious month, as a seminar leader in Barry Callaghan's year-long course in English- and French-Canadian literatures and cultures at York University's Atkinson College.

I must have been insane.

But there was in fact some trace of method involved in my decision to take on that additional work. What did I know about teaching—or, for that matter, about creative scholarship or creative anything? Nearly nothing. Yet for reasons I'll explain I had a strong feeling that I needed to be doing something beyond just community college teaching. When I learned about an opening for a seminar leader in what sounded like a quite remarkable course at Atkinson, I thought it might be what I needed to keep the cogs turning. I was about to learn a great deal about teaching, and much else besides.

During the previous academic year, 1971-72, I'd been a freshly-minted Master of Arts looking to find out whether work in higher education could be a part of what I wanted to do with my life. I was passionate, in an immature way, about the writing of my own place and time. The University of Toronto had of course done its best to discourage any such interest (permitting, for example, just a single course in Canadian Literature to be included among the sixty-five graduate courses offered during my MA year by the Graduate Department of English). But I was not discouraged: when I wasn't on the prowl for teaching work, I was grinding out derivative verse—and, astonishingly, had a poem accepted by Canadian Forum, which actually proposed to pay me for the thing. (What might the princely sum have been: fifteen dollars? Fame and fortune were clearly just around the corner.)

I was able to pick up work on a per-course basis at Centennial College in 1971-72, teaching both at the main campus and in a nursing program at a hospital affiliated to the college.1 And thanks to the University of Toronto's apparent failure to notice that I was no longer enrolled as a graduate student, I was given a lecture course in Canadian literature, one that I'd served in as a teaching assistant during my MA year, at the U of T's Scarborough College. That was a double stroke of luck: it helped my candidacy for a permanent job at Centennial the next summer; and, as I subsequently learned, one of my Scarborough students, I. B. McAuliffe, was the incoming president of Centennial, a businessman who very decently wanted to prepare himself for the job by learning something about the humanities. (It was a pleasant surprise to hear from Lillian Frid, the director of Centennial's English Department, that when the department perhaps rather tentatively put my name forward for the job, their judgment was boomingly endorsed by the man at the top. Had I by some chance awarded him an A?)

But by the time I got that job, I'd done enough teaching of community-college business English and grammar and composition to know that if I did nothing but that—and I hadn't seriously contemplated any paying alternatives—I would shrivel up and blow away.

Though I had yet to encounter either René Descartes's formulation of the question, Quod vitae sectabor iter? (“What path shall I follow in life?”), or Barry Callaghan's gambler's response to all questions of this genre—“One must be willing to be lucky”2—I suppose I was already, proleptically, following Callaghan's advice. I allowed myself to be lucky not just in getting the Centennial College job, but also in falling into simultaneous supplemental work at Atkinson College—a happy first step, I can see in retrospect, towards severing myself from that first-ever full-time employment. (In 1974 I responded to a 30 percent pay raise and promotion by quitting my Centennial job—taking at age twenty-five what my colleagues jocularly called early retirement—and moving to England to make myself, if not a writer, then at least a scholar.)

* * *

But what was so special about Callaghan's Atkinson College course in 1972-73? I'm not sure that at this distance in time I could reliably remember its formal name. (Could it have been anything as banal as “Readings in Contemporary Canadian Culture”?) And while I remember that the class met one evening every week in a giant hall in York University's Glendon campus for Callaghan's two-hour lecture, which was followed by a further hour in which the six or seven seminar leaders hunkered down in separate classrooms with their fractions of the class, I couldn't swear to the details of that format, and I have no memory at all of what may have transpired in my own seminars. What I do remember, with haunting clarity, is Callaghan's presence as a lecturer, and the remarkable power and originality of his teaching.

Let me try to explain that originality. During the late 1980s and 1990s, “Cultural Studies” entered the discourses of the North American academy as one quite compelling answer to questions that had been posed during the preceding decades about disciplinarity, in literary studies and the adjoining disciplines, by feminist, deconstructive, and materialist theories and critical practices. Where, for example, are the boundary-lines between literary and non-literary texts, and between the structures, forms and social practices identified with 'high culture' and those that constitute culture in general? If we're not convinced that such boundaries can or should exist, why should we disable our understanding of culture in the wider sense by enforcing its disciplinary subdivision into artificially or ideologically organized parts?

Questions of this sort reach back to Ferdinand de Saussure's early-twentieth-century vision of “une sémiologie générale,” a general science of signification that he hoped might apply the insights of his structural linguistics across the whole breadth of human experience. In a somewhat narrower sense, they attach themselves to the successive formulations of something called “Cultural Studies” by scholars like Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall at the University of Birmingham and elsewhere in England during the 1960s and 70s—formulations that, in the wake of feminism, poststructuralism and cultural materialism, began to attract attention as evidence of a new academic 'counter-discipline' that in terms both of subject-matter and of methodology held out the possibility of passing through or over the boundaries of traditional disciplines like literature, history, and sociology.

I don't mean to suggest that Barry Callaghan's teaching was linked in method or tonality with the work of the Birmingham school, or that he showed the remotest interest in such irreducibly academic discourses as the then-emergent structuralism, let alone the poststructuralism that was yet to come. But I would claim that in this course, and concurrently in his literary and political journalism of this period, Callaghan was inventing, avant la lettre, a specifically Canadian form of what we can appropriately call cultural studies.

I am thinking of 'invention' not in a technological sense (as in the conceptualizing and assembling of a previously undreamt-of machine), but rather in its traditional sense in the discourse of classical rhetoric. In a rhetorical context, inventio or discovery refers to a process of coming upon and selecting out for present use and deployment the 'places' (loci or topoi)—things already known and stored in memory—that are relevant to a particular situation and a particular moment.

It is of course always the case that the forms and practices which come together to shape new constellations of cultural apprehension and understanding are in a potential sense already available within the culture. What is needed to activate them is someone whose cultural repertoire—or, if you prefer, whose soul—is large enough to encompass a significantly wider range of forms and practices than has previously been acknowledged as possible or appropriate, and whose judgment is clear enough to enable a recognition of the most important conjunctions and contradictions within this expanded field.

What was relevant to an understanding of Canadian culture in the years immediately following the October Crisis of 1970? Callaghan's answer to this was especially rich because his store of topoi was drawn from French- as well as English-Canadian culture, and included not just literary, sociological, historiographic and political discourses, but also a complex array of journalistic experiences (available in the course of his lectures in the form of excerpts from filmed interviews and documentaries he himself had made), as well as constant references to wider, more cosmopolitan cultural and political contexts.

But perhaps this is too generalized a way of putting it. Let's consider in more detail the converging impressions students were given of French-Canadian culture. The intensity of the required reading in this course, and its overlay of different cultural forms and discourses, demanded a trans-disciplinary understanding. What had Québec been in the years before Jean Lesage's révolution tranquille, and what was it becoming? Students acquired an understanding of the politics and cultural politics through reading essays of Pierre Trudeau from Cité libre in the time of the infamous asbestos strike and since, and the artists' manifesto Refus global (accompanied by projections of some of the great abstract canvases of Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle), as well as through lectures that took them from the astonishing differences between English- and French-Canadian historiographical traditions up to the best-selling anticlerical manifesto Les Insolences du Frère Untel and Pierre Vallières's separatist autobiography-manifesto, Nègres blancs de l'Amérique. The gender politics of a priest-ridden, colonized culture became manifest in the anguished poetry of Saint-Denys Garneau, in Anne Hébert's equally resonant poetry and her novel Kamouraska, and in Claire Martin's appalling memoir Dans un gant de fer. And the emergence of a specifically québécois postmodern aesthetic, which was at the same time an angry, hallucinatory and intermittently hilarious questioning of social class divisions and linguistic divisions, and a revisionary re-imagining of a history laden with tragicomic misrecognitions, was traced in the short fiction of Jacques Ferron and the poetry of Gaston Miron, and in novels like Marie-Claire Blais's Une Saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel, Roch Carrier's La Guerre, Yes Sir! and Hubert Aquin's Prochain épisode.3 Converging evidence was provided through documentary film clips—some of them Callaghan's own interviews with people like Pierre Trudeau, Marie-Claire Blais, René Levesque, radical labour leader Michel Chartrand, and student activists who had been part of the political mobilization that was shut down by the imposition of the War Measures Act in October 1970.

I'm not going to describe in parallel detail the manner in which Callaghan opened up for his students (and his seminar leaders) an equally rich and complex understanding of the cultural practices, social structures, political and historiographic discourses, initiatives towards critical self-understanding, and enduring self-delusions of English Canada. Once again we read novels and poetry, as well as the fictions of historians and sociologists, engaged with the thought of critics and communication theorists from Harold Innis to Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, mulled over reproductions of art works, and watched interviews with some of the key agents and analysts of our contemporary history. Because Callaghan's literary culture is cosmopolitan (and hence by definition not merely or exclusively literary, but intimate as well with adjoining discourses), and because he has travelled in body as well as mind—his journalistic work had taken him to the Middle East, to several African countries, to Latin America and to Eastern Europe—what he had to say about English Canada was never solely and provincially just about English Canada. And once again the lectures were magisterial, witty, and compelling.

* * *

The brilliant critic and teacher could at times be intimidating, even cruel. I remember one conversation between Barry and his seminar leaders in which a rebellious remark of some sort from me drew forth, by way of rebuke, an oddly snobbish speculation as to the car I drove: it must be, he thought, a Chevy Vega. The point had to do, I think, with naiveté and bad taste, since the compact cars the Detroit automakers had recently rolled out to compete with the Japanese were uniformly disastrous. (The Pinto, which Ford tried to sell in Latin America without thinking that its name means, in Spanish, “sexually underendowed,” was famous for its exploding gas-tank; the Vega for a more generalized mechanical ineptitude.) Or perhaps the image of someone two metres tall winding himself in and out of a small and badly designed car was by itself a sufficient marker of folly.

I confessed to driving a Vega. But the truth was much worse. What I actually drove was a wretched little English-made Vauxhall station-wagon, marketed on this continent as the Envoy Epic—but epic only in its failings. Unstable, underpowered, ugly, unreliable—or rather, reliable only in that its radiator would boil over and go off like Old Faithful after two minutes of idling in gridlock traffic. Oh yes, and the heater didn't work (an attractive feature in those Ontario winters), the clutch was fussy, and the braking delicate and intermittent.

The literary theorist Stanley Fish has argued persuasively that literary academics—other than himself—are unrestrained masochists and drive ugly cars as one sign of their endless appetite for humiliation.4 Was this Epic of mine a precocious marker of professional orientation?

* * *

The year 1972 was a pivotal one for Barry Callaghan. Having been unceremoniously fired by the CBC for the lèse-majesté of daring to put forceful questions, on camera, about the ethics of conquest and occupation to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, and having concurrently lost some of the other outlets in which he was publishing literary journalism of a quality unsurpassed in that period, Callaghan launched the literary quarterly Exile.

The first numbers of that journal, appearing during the academic year 1972-73, added a further dimension to the aura of his teaching: here was current work by some of the writers we were exploring in that course—Roch Carrier, Morley Callaghan, Marie-Claire Blais—appearing elbow-to-elbow with work by international figures such as Yehuda Amichai, Samuel Beckett and John Montague. And as in Callaghan's lecture hall, the circuit of conversation was not closed: in each issue of Exile young Canadian writers, some of them making their first appearance in print, were being published alongside these masters.

Barry Callaghan's poetry and fiction, and his achievements with Exile, and subsequently and concurrently with Exile Editions (which in the autumn of 2006 published its three-hundredth title), remain available for our inspection as a material archive. And thanks to the ongoing project of a multi-volume republication of his non-fiction prose, it is becoming possible for contemporary readers to appreciate as well the scale and quality of his achievement as a literary and cultural critic.

Teaching, however, is more evanescent. The more receptive of Callaghan's students may indeed have been transformed by their passage through his lecture-hall, developing a deeper and more complex understanding of their culture and history, and perhaps also their own selves, than might otherwise have been possible.

Yet however innovative that classroom work may have been, it is now preserved only in the fading memories of those who participated in it. Hence these reflections—“Though for no other cause,” in Richard Hooker's words, “yet for this; that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream....”5




1  There I had the less than brilliant idea of teaching John Fowles' novel The Collector to a first year class. The night before we arrived at that grim fiction of sexual predation and murder, second-year nursing students, as a prank, phoned up to the first-year floors of their residence tower the news that a sexual predator was loose in the building. By two in the morning even the original pranksters had become convinced of this terrifying fact, and students throughout the residence spent the rest of the night huddling in one another's rooms in tear-stained clusters. Two young women ran sobbing from my class that morning before I'd spoken much more than a sentence.

2  Callaghan writes of the moment at which he was offered the job of Books Editor of the Toronto Telegram, “Looking back, I can see that there was only one question on the lunch table: Was I willing to be lucky”—and of Harry Crowe's offer of a year's funding for a literary quarterly, “A quarterly! I didn't know anything about quarterlies. But again, I was willing to be lucky” (Raise You Five: Essays and Encounters 1964-2004, Volume One [Toronto: McArthur, 2005], pp. xv, xvii).

3  Students were in fact reading these texts for the most art in English translation, though it is my memory that at Callaghan's insistence the university bookstore also offered editions in the original French.

4  See “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos,” in Fish's There's No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing Too (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

5  Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. Christopher Morris (2 vols.; London: Dent, 1954), vol. 1, p. 77.