Lisa Robertson: Theory, A City

theory-croppedTheory, A City: Introduction
Lisa Robertson

The feminist writers of Montréal have altered their city irrevocably. When women write about and from the cities they live in, they are transforming the material city into a web of possibility and risk. The description of the city bends back on itself — it not only represents, it opens up a site for the political imagination. Through the fictive and theoretical act, the city is re-inscribed as a space for radical otherness. Montréal is more than its official civic history. In this volume, it figures as a character, a velocity — its streets and cafés and bars are exerting forcefields. It’s a gathering of urgencies, errancies, overflowing critiques, pausing to make in the movement of women’s language what the political economy has disallowed.

The feminist consciousness that Nicole Brossard recognized in the writers she invited to the Sunday theory group in 1983 — what supported it, what permitted it to develop? Why do certain cities at certain times become the stages for intense social and cultural transformation? I think of early 20th century Paris, the city that was a home for so many of the women expatriate writers who have become the crucial figures of modernist literary and intellectual culture — Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, Mary Butts, Sylvia Beach, Nathalie Barney. From my admiring distance, and across the duration of many friendships, Montréal feels to me to be a place of comparable intellectual generosity and intensity. What generates and supports the networks of friendship, argument, and intellectual collaboration that have caused 20th century women’s writing to consistently develop and strengthen as an urban, cultural, and political force in Montréal and elsewhere? Thinking about and reading the work of these Montréal women now, 25 years later, I am brought to the realization that feminism is one of the scintillating companions of the culture of cities. Feminist culture, discourse and resistance has shaped contemporary urban experience and urban space. Certain writers have claimed the city for feminism, to insist that any city is the vibrant space inflected by women’s voices. There is no city without our voices.

For the young feminist writers of 1980s Vancouver, where I then lived, the Montréal women’s writing scene was mythic and galvanizing. Reading the translated Québécoise texts emerging from The Women’s Press and Coach House Books, and in journals such as Writing, Raddle Moon, Room of One’s Own and Tessera, we relished the presence of a vigorous, complex, avant-garde feminist context. We didn’t need to invent feminist writing entirely on our own — it was already happening, and it was welcoming our desires, our political passions, our experiments and our transformations. Brossard’s 1985 book of essays Aerial Letter, translated into English in 1988, and Gail Scott’s Heroine (1987) and Spaces Like Stairs (1989) forged a discourse that was as insistent on women’s solidarity as it was on our ecstatic experience of language as embodiment. That politics could be ecstatic, that feminism could make a world where the particularity of our language, our friendships, our love, and our bodies could continue to transform our relationships to the institutions of history and culture: our early exposure to Québécoise feminism brought this wildness home to us. Montréal’s was a desiring feminism in every sense of the phrase.

So Montréal, as spoken and written here, also transformed the speculative potentials of other cities into sites of feminist becoming. This was so in Toronto, where the late Barbara Godard, translator, theorist, and founder of Tessera magazine, lived and translated the works of Brossard. It was true in Calgary, where scholars like Susan Rudy and Pauline Butling opened a feminist discourse for their students and their communities. It was true in Winnipeg, in Victoria — across the country this work was received by feminist writers with intelligence and passion. The women of Montréal, by living, writing, and discussing through their own specificity, altered the cities of their readers. Through their texts, all cities became the potentially charged, vibrating matrices of self-realizing female speech and text, the cusps of a long series of embodied realizations. The space of the city, the space of language, the space of the imaginary, the space of ethics: each of these, separately and together, is in the Theory, A Sunday texts a female space, a feminist space, which is to say, in Louise Dupré’s words, “a territory in motion, open, polymorphous. A movement.”

If Dupré’s terms suggest a Deleuzian sensibility, they invite us to recall that the formative texts of 20th century French structuralist and post-structuralist theory, philosophy and psychoanalysis arrived on the North American continent by at least two very different means: one was the familiar embrace by American universities of the translated and academically mediated texts of structuralism and deconstruction as specialized discourses. But the Québécois had a different cultural and linguistic access to European French theory, a differently mediated relationship to the texts whose readings have, in the Anglophone world, been largely removed from the social and political movements that inflected French writing in the 60s and 70s. In France, we can identify the radical presence of Occupation Resistance politics, the war in Algeria and the accompanying militarization of French Algerian life within France, the French war in Indo-China, and the events of the May ’68 student and worker uprising as being crucial to the discursive decentering and politicization of philosophy and criticism. As these events unfolded in France, parallel yet independent social and political transformations were taking place in Québec.

The Quiet Revolution, the term Anglophone media used to describe the period from 1960 until 1966 in Québec politics, named a period of intense change at every level of society. The secularization of a previously highly traditional, church-dominated social and family structure, the turn from a largely rural, agricultural economy to state-supported urbanism, the flourishing of demands for civil and linguistic rights, as well as women’s rights within and outside the family — this period completely changed the face of Québécois social experience.In 1964, the liberal government passed Bill 16, “which abolished a married woman’s judicial handicap by which her legal status was that of a minor.”[1]  This period also saw the formation of a decolonialist, Québécois, nationalist, separatist politics most forcefully articulated by the Front de Libération du Québéc. The FLQ was an armed separatist faction whose demands for Québec’s political, cultural and linguistic sovereignty were expressed by a chain of violent actions beginning with bombings of military barracks in 1961, continuing to a bombing attack on the Montréal Stock Exchange in 1969, and escalating to the 1970 kidnappings of a member of the British Consulate, James Cross, then the provincial Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte, who was ultimately murdered. In response, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau instituted the War Measures Act in October 1970, essentially suspending all civil rights and transforming Québec into a military zone. Under the power of the War Measures Act and subsequent, related punitive federal regulations, in less than a year, hundreds of people were arrested and detained, and thousands were searched, without charges or warrants, nor recourse to legal counsel.[2] This political crisis had a momentous effect in Québécois and Canadian history, serving to foreground and stimulate the organization of groups, actions, and discourses around civil liberties issues, freedom of speech, and rights to autonomous political action by citizens, arguably intensifying the separatist movement rather than curtailing it. Indeed, since this galvanizing period in Québec history, we have seen Québec as a center of popular self-determination and resistance. During the summer of 1990 in the town of Oka, outside of Montréal, a coalition of indigenous peoples defended a Mohawk burial ground which was under threat of redevelopment into a golf course for luxury condominiums.

An 87 day armed standoff between the native Mohawk people and their supporters, and the Canadian armed forces occurred. The uprising was eventually successful, and the proposed development was withdrawn. Also, at least contingently successful, was the recent Printemps érable, the Spring and Summer 2012 student strike and mass protest against the increase of tuition fees, a protest that inspired a solidarity movement both among students and worker groups, as well as across the country. The struggle to defend the French language against the ahistorical Anglicization of culture in Québec is ongoing.

I point to this vital, popular, historical presence of political resistance movements in Québec for several reasons. In the context of the publication of Theory, A Sunday in the USA, it seems essential to indicate the political history specific to Québec, a history which both conditioned and surrounded the feminist community in Montréal, and served to politicize many of us elsewhere in Canada. That this Québécois political history is under-represented in the North American Anglophone context is undeniable. But I also want to indicate the relationship of Québec’s political history to that of France, in order to suggest that the reception of French theoretical texts in Québec, as well as their influence by Québec, bore a meaning utterly different than it did in broader North American contexts. In France and in Québec, theory was not only an institutional discourse but a manual and testing ground for political revolution. It responded to conditions in real time. For example, Deleuze and Guattari’s 1975 book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, a text that so cogently articulated the political positioning of minor or colonized languages, showing such languages to be rife with covert agency and transformational potential, essentially describes the long-existent complex situation of Québécois writing and language. Québécois French, an isolated language community within the dominant Anglophone political economy of Canada and the USA, a minor, under-recognized, and often patronized language in relation to European French linguistic and cultural history, a language always under assault by the tedious and ubiquitous hegemonies and entertainment products of capital, has had to find and organize within itself a strong current of resistance, by means of which its identity has been consolidated, and its agency radicalized. (Here I will indicate in passing the important presence of historical micro-communities of French speakers across Canada — in Northern Ontario, for example, in the Métis communities of Manitoba, in the Acadian areas of the Maritime provinces, and in northern Alberta.) The writers of Theory, A Sunday are, in this sense, multiply marginalized as writers who are Québécois French speaking and feminist. That their recourse to French theory, from de Beauvoir to Lacan to Irigaray to Wittig to Barthes to Meschonnic, has been one of the tactics towards survival, rather than an embellishment or diversification of the vocabularies of academic speech, is central to their vision of what theory is, what theory performs.

Just what is this Sunday activity, theory? First, we can surmise that it is a collective activity. Six women theorize together, which is not to negate the solitude of theory either. In Fourier’s terms (referring here to Barthes’ 1978 course “How to Live Together,” at the Collège de France), solitude and being together are not contradictory states when they take place in or via the utopian imaginary. This feels like an essential recognition, here within the experimental terrain of feminist theory. Collectivity does not negate singularity, but complements or even enables it. Next, as well as being collective and singular, theory is punctual, regularly practiced. Part of what makes theory theory is that it is returned to with rigor and openness.

On Sundays, for example. This punctual revisiting is what transforms thought into theory, or a point of view. Theory is the space made by returning, in order to have a position from which to view the world. The space is collective and solitary: mutual. So the looking that theory performs is situated and multiple. As such, theory is political. It’s not different or separate than the ongoing questions about how living together happens and what living together means, or could mean. Theory doesn’t necessarily or exclusively happen in academic institutions. In fact, academia was emphatically not the site for a feminist invention of theory in 1980s Québec, as Louky Bersianik emphasizes: there feminism met with only a demeaning misogynist refusal of its claims, terms, and necessity. When theory happens outside of academia, it means something different. It’s more mobile, edgy, responsive to experienced conditions. When theory happens at home, right where life is most concentrated and messy, it’s bound to disrupt the banal and gendered dualism of public and private language. Its space is symbolic, not institutional. So theory is also transformational: “Theory, a story I tell so that the world changes in my favor, so that it swerves towards my own eyes” says Louise Cotnoir, who goes on to discuss how theory changes “the registers and forms of the real. To invent the language of a knowledge based on decategorized emotion.” So the work of theory is a work of and upon the imaginary, which is to say that it creates new, necessary situations and emotions. In this sense, theory is not a second order language; it doesn’t only speak about something else, it generates knowledge on its own terms. Theory is an agent, and it is a resistance. And here, on a Sunday, the knowledge that theory generates is this: how to create a female subject, a subjecte. It’s the way, France Théoret beautifully insists, that we tell the story of our female lives each day. Theory is our city.

Lisa Robertson (2013)

The introduction to Theory, A Sunday is posted with permission from *belladonna. Watch for excerpts from Theory, A Sunday to appear here over the next six weeks, and plan on attending a celebration of Quebec Women’s Writing at Concordia University on October 16th. More to come, and please, we welcome comments, discussions, elaborations and entanglements below.

[1] Durocher, René. “Quiet Revolution.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica-Dominion, 2012. Web. June 6, 2013. quiet-revolution.

[2] Clément, Dominique. “October Crisis.” Canada’s Human Rights History. Web. June 6, 2013.                             http://www.