Cultural Academics: A Quick (Rough) Glimpse at my Masters’ Thesis

While some regular readers may be entirely disinterested in what follows, I had mentioned an interest in gathering some feedback/response to the introduction to my Masters’ thesis on Twitter and there was some pretty decent response. And so, in order to give everyone a glimpse at why the amount of blog coverage has been (outside of the Emmys) down a bit over the past few months, the following is a glimpse at the project that I’ve put together. Any feedback is more than welcome, of course.

Introduction

“You think there’s not a lot going on / Look closer, baby, you’re so wrong”
– Theme Song to Corner Gas

If you were to run a survey asking participants to describe the Canadian small town with a single adjective, the answers you receive will vary depending on the location of your survey. In a rural environment, the small town could be described as peaceful or serene, a welcoming and inclusive community. In an urban environment, meanwhile, the small town could be described as quaint, or backwards, or simple. While this thesis will engage with these types of responses, and the paradigms they represent, it is more concerned with another adjective that might not immediately jump onto one’s tongue: nation.

While the historical position of the small town, once the centerpiece of Canadian society and now a marginalized setting isolated within a predominantly urban nation, will be discussed throughout this thesis, the most fascinating quality of the Canadian small town is its continued role in the nation’s cultural production. Although the small town has only become more and more marginalized, it has emerged as the setting for the twenty-first century’s two most successful Canadian television comedies, Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie. That these two series, set in rural small towns but airing to a predominantly urban audience, have found success indicates that history alone does not define the Canadian small town.

In the first chapter of this thesis, I will demonstrate that the small town has persisted in cultural production thanks to its emergence as a microcosm for the nation, as historical conditions inspired authors to develop imagined communities where small towns stood in for the broader nation. I will demonstrate how the regional idyll emerges as a romantic defence of small town values, projecting an image of Canada as a welcoming and peaceful nation despite the threat of industrialization and urbanization. Decades later, however, a new paradigm of the small town emerges that depicts the nation as an exclusive and claustrophic garrison, threatening the sensitivity of modern individuals. These two paradigms form the basis of all further small town microcosms in Canada, and the first chapter clearly identifies their defining qualities.

In the second chapter, the definitive texts of these two paradigms will be analyzed in order to understand how viewing the small town as a microcosm for nationalism helps us understand responses to questions of national identity. I will demonstrate how the definitive regional idyll, Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, and the definitive depiction of the garrison mentality, Sinclair Ross’ As For Me and My House, are driven by a combination of historical, social and biographical factors to either end of this central binary. However, I will also show how the internal debate between the two paradigms found within each text, and stimulated by the same literary devices which support one key paradigm, reflect the complexity of questions of national identity. I will then go on to show how this complex debate between the two paradigms is the legacy of the small town microcosm and would gain new relevance in the late twentieth century’s ambivalence towards nationalism, as demonstrated through an analysis of Lynn Coady’s Strange Heaven.

In Chapter Three, I will step into the twenty-first century and investigate how Corner Gas negotiates the small town as a national microcosm through the medium of television. While television does offer its own unique challenges, including a traditional lack of successful Canadian sitcoms and the small scale of Canada’s television industry, it also offers exciting new forms of visual representation and episodic structure to construct the small town microcosm. Rather than defining itself based on one particular paradigm, Corner Gas utilizes pre-existing knowledge of both the idyll and the garrison to engage urban viewers with a rural setting almost entirely foreign to them. Its depiction of an urban outsider attempting (successfully, but gradually) to integrate into the small town community serves two key purposes: not only does it allow urban audiences to slowly become familiar with the small town setting, but it also forms a national microcosm where elements of the garrison give way to an inclusive community accepting of difference.

The fourth chapter, however, expands the small town microcosm into national concerns outside of the urban/rural divide as it investigates Little Mosque on the Prairie’s engagement with multiculturalism. While the media initially pegged the series as a satire of post-9/11 racial politics, I will demonstrate how its position as a publicly funded series as well as the complexity of Canadian multiculturalism require a more thorough examination of its engagement with national issues. By analyzing the show’s decision to engage with the predominantly urban phenomenon of multiculturalism within the small town setting, the chapter will show how the small town microcosm is a more manageable setting to engage with issues as complex as racial politics, and concepts as large and unwieldy as the nation. I conclude that while Little Mosque may appear to be operating as a broad political statement on the conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, its contribution to national identity is its familiarization of Islam and the Muslim community through the small town setting. Using examples from the series’ first season, I will identify the way the series transcends the complex urban experience of multiculturalism and uses the ‘quaint’ small town in order to magnify and highlight their experience in twenty-first century Canada.

What I have ultimately come to understand is that the varied opinions of the small town, and the dichotomous paradigms which emerged in response to historical events, are not a complication of the small town microcosm but rather an integral part of its effectiveness. Nationalism as a Canadian value is an eternal debate, where differences of region, ethnicity, or even time period will fundamentally alter your opinion. The complex nature of the imagined community of the small town allows it to adapt to new mediums, emerging beyond competing adjectives like peaceful and backwards to capture the complexity of the nation itself, a complexity that will hopefully become more understood as a result of this thesis.

[As one would expect, copyright Myles McNutt and the like. You know the drill.]

1 Comment

Filed under Cultural Learnings

One response to “Cultural Academics: A Quick (Rough) Glimpse at my Masters’ Thesis

  1. Very interesting. As a Canadian living in a small town I find this subject very intriguing. Unfortunately I don’t identify with either of those shows, I live on the West Coast. But I can see how they do represent a typical, simplified, Canadian small town environment.

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