New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies

http://aries.oise.utoronto.ca/dawn/journal/

 

 

Edmontonian Beauty

 

Gamal Abdel-Shehid

York University

 

Preface

 

Before moving to Edmonton, Alberta to take up my first tenure-stream job in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, I had lived for a number of years in downtown Toronto.  During the time I lived in Toronto, I was a graduate student at York University and an activist around issues such as anti-racism, queer sexuality and anti-Zionism.  I had also become an urban creature.  I enjoyed the vitality of the city’s public culture, its shops and cafés, the vibrant cultural and political activism and the relatively good condition of its public transit system.  I was also comfortable with the relatively decent way in which issues of social difference were addressed by many of the city’s residents.  To be sure, this relative ease was not something that happened automatically, as an offshoot of urban life.  The relative ease in which these issues were addressed was largely a result of a series of struggles by artists, activists and intellectuals (e.g. feminist, queer, anti-imperialist) committed to these causes over the course of many years.  While the history of activism and struggle around these issues has yet to be written, there is no doubt that these events made an impact in the common sense of the city.  Cultural and political festivals such as Desh Pardesh, a ten-year long festival of queer South Asian culture, and such things as the Inside/Out Lesbian and Gay film festival are only two examples out of hundreds.

    

Yet the situation in Toronto is far from perfect.  In some respects it is regressing as a result of several factors.  The first is the relentless urban gentrification policies that emerged out of the mid-1990s and the anti-urban provincial government of Mike Harris.  This government clearly paved the way for the suburban policies of mayor Mel Lastman in the newly amalgamated mega-city.  These policies have intensified the gap between Toronto’s rich and poor at an astronomical rate.  Moreover, incidents of racism, both institutional and personal have increased within both the xenophobic and Islamo-phobic post-911 period and the Sino-phobic post-SARS context.  Queer liberation politics in the city seems to have been devastated by the twin effects of the AIDS pandemic and neo-liberal economic and social policies.  The after-effects of the AIDS pandemic has meant that many queers have become afraid of sex and public visibility in anything but the most heteronormative terms.  Alongside this, we have seen neo-liberal economic policies that have severely weakened and privatized public space in the city.  This has made more of us house-conscious and consumer conscious, with the result being that many gay men and lesbians in the city choose a certain kind of “refined” urban aesthetic consumption to be the only means to express their sexuality.

 

Yet in spite of these setbacks, the city does have a remarkable history of struggle and activism, around redressing social inequality based on difference.  This has led, among things, to the creation of what Himani Bannerji has called “popular multiculturalism.”[1]  Popular multiculturalism is different from official multiculturalism in that it deals with the creole nature in which many of the city’s residents, largely non-white, deal with ethno-cultural difference in a daily way: in restaurants, workplaces, on the transit system, at films and protests. Popular multiculturalism, or urban creole culture, by and large does not see ethnic difference as something that needs to be exoticised, gawked at, policed, or dismissed.  It should be noted that the city’s non-white residents lead this movement — both formally and informally.  In these popularly multicultural spaces, ethnocultural difference is understood and accepted as something that we all live and embody, where no one occupies the dominant location of the settler, who is to be translated for and spoken to.

 

As I write this, I realize that this reality exists in very small spaces, and is more of a fantasy than a reality, but my point is that in Toronto, as opposed to Edmonton, such conversations and actions have begun to take place, whereas in Edmonton, for a variety of reasons, some of which I outline below, they have not. In my opinion, one of the major reasons why these conventions and confluences have occurred is as a result of the close quarters in which sustainable and mixed commercial and residential urban space in Toronto allows for. 

 

Thus, this essay attempts to deal with the five years I spent in Edmonton from the point of view I have just briefly outlined.  More specifically, it is an attempt to answer a question I was repeatedly asked by my friends during my frequent return visits to Toronto, which was: “How’s Edmonton?”  The essay uses first hand and phenomenological insights, as well as snippets of cultural theory to answer the question.   The essay is written in what some might call an anti-academic style.  Unlike most academic essays, I do not begin in the voice of another more established theorist.  Nor do I attempt to place this essay within larger academic debates about the issues it takes up, such as “race” and space, public culture, urban life and so on.   Nor do I set out a series of theoretical approaches that I am indebted to, in order to crush them, build on them, or what have you.  Rather, I attempt to let the theory and theoretical insights be guided by my observations in Edmonton.  The essay appears in its original form, in vignettes, after this preface, and is followed by an afterword that discusses the reception of the paper at the CSAA meeting in June 2003 in Halifax, as well as addressing some of the issues that I think could have been raised in the original. 

 

The reason I chose to write in vignettes is that it is more akin to the way I think and understand the world, which is not in a linear, dispassionate and objective voice.   As such, rather than solely reading this as an academic essay, I suggest that you read it as a triptych, something that you could pick up on the way to Edmonton or while you are there, as a sort of unofficial map.  But it is not a map with landmarks, dots and lines.  Rather, it a cultural and political map, written by myself, which might allow you to gain some insight into the manic and repressed energy and the colonial violence, which structures the city in undeniable ways.  Moreover, if anything, I am trying to draw a line here between the massive and ongoing colonial violence in the city, largely directed by state and “citizen” alike at the indigenous population, and the manic repressive energy that confines most of its citizens to cars, frivolous consumption and excessive normativity.[2]

 

In addition, the essay focuses on the spectacular nature of the city, or the way in which life is lived primarily in terms of Debord’s notion of spectacle.  The spectacle means that there is an inordinate cultural importance placed on the gaze as the way to understand the social space. The gaze, as I show, is not an innocent or an inquisitive one.  In other words, it is not the curious gaze of strangers or the familiar and caring gaze of loved ones.  More to the point, it is a gaze that does not look to know. It already knows.  It is a policing gaze used both by state and “citizen” and is the organizing logic for the city, which is both authoritative and authorizing.  It routinely seeks out “strangers” and reads them not only as inferior, but also as capable of being spoken for, criminalized, consumed and rendered inferior.  Moreover, it is an extremely narcissistic gaze, which when it is not reaffirmed by itself, it is shocked, miffed and baffled.  As a result, it can only see alterity or difference as something in need of management, change, explanation or expulsion.

 

What I try to suggest in this essay is that the colonial or anthropological gaze in Edmonton is not merely something that exists at the optical level.  It also exists at the spatial level, and thus it profoundly orders and organizes the space of the city. By virtue of its penetrating quality, it seeks to literally push certain bodies outside.  Much like a voice that is either welcoming or hostile, the gaze is the same.  It seeks to push away that which it deems abnormal, these bodies are usually marked as sexually and racially outside the norm.  In so doing, the gaze occupies — both bodies and space.   When it does not push away, it chooses to consume the colonial and sexual artifacts it would like to keep around.  As a beautiful afro-arab middle class gay man, who is mostly read as straight, I found myself being alternately consumed and pushed away by the colonial gaze in the city. 

 

I also suggest below that the gaze helps make Edmonton a proto-urban space.  By proto-urban I mean something that is not quite urban, not quite suburban and not quite rural either.  It is therefore a category unto itself.  If anything, Edmonton’s proto-urban nature is defined by a false modernity that offers only the most superficial elements of urban life, which are primarily commodities.  These commodities offer the illusion of urban-ness without the actual components of urban life, which include comprehensive public transit, vibrant and mixed public culture and counter-cultural spaces of dissent and critique.  False modernity is typified by inordinate privatization and no investment in the ways in which urban life depends on shared spaces.  The lack of will on Edmonton’s city council to build sustainable public transit and public recreational spaces is evidence of this.  Moreover, the lack of will among the city’s artists and cultural producers to produce critical art that is not by and large celebratory or clichéd is further evidence of this.  The city council, and the settler bourgeoisie who run the city would rather have people believe that a booming economy and the existence of modern or urban commodities exist in Edmonton.  Edmonton’s shops, owing to the circuits of multinational capital, mirror those of other larger cities like Toronto and Tokyo, featuring stores like the Gap and Starbucks.  These stores contain the latest fashions, gadgets and fine gourmet ingredients.  The city also features the latest technological  innovations and has been attempting, over the last few years, to develop itself as a centre for technological innovation.

 

Yet this is the end of urban life in Edmonton.  The working assumption is that commodities and technologies are enough to make a city.  Many residents that I spoke to while working there seemed to think that major urban centres were dirty, congested and uninteresting, and that most of what was needed in a city was readily available, and could be purchased or at worst, shipped in.  There seemed to be very little understanding among many (specifically middle class) that urban life, or at least a meaningful one, involved more than consumption.  There was little recognition that urban life, at minimum, involves recognition of social difference, an attempt to produce a lively and flourishing public culture — evident in the planning of space, an efficient and comprehensive public transit system, an aggressive and provocative cultural scene, and a flourishing affordable and public housing program.

 

This anti-urban and relatedly proto-urban quality of the city can be seen by the fact that there is no downtown to speak of in Edmonton.  If there is, it exists as a centre that once was, and now is no longer.   Despite recent attempts at urban “renewal”, the city’s downtown core is largely dead after five on weeknights and on weekends.   The city, owing to the strength of the oil magnates who run it, is designed for the car, and there is a profoundly limited human scale.  Stores, restaurants and gathering places are designed with parking and not pedestrians in mind.  During the time that I lived there, I was struck by how isolated I was as a pedestrian in the city.  Walking in downtown Edmonton, not to mention its seemingly endless suburbs, can indeed be a harrowing experience, witnessed by the inordinate and increasing number of pedestrian deaths at the hands of automobiles.  In addition to this, it is impossible to escape the deafening noise of cars, SUVs and pickup trucks constantly zipping by at very high speeds.  This is caused not only by the sounds of the automobiles themselves but also by their sheer volume.  Edmonton’s small and beleaguered downtown is buttressed by mini-highways, lest its residents mistake it for a city centre for too long.  For example roads just outside the downtown core, like Jasper Avenue at 109 Street, or 104 Avenue at 109 Street, contain six lanes!

 

The expanse of road and the amount of space roads occupy in the city is breathtaking.  More to the point, it has a profound effect on the public and democratic culture of the city, without many of us realizing it.  What this offers is not simply the allusion of open space, but its actuality, mediated as it is by cars and highways.  This organization does move people around the city, but it may in fact be moving them around too quickly. A feeling of immediacy seems to pervade the city’s consciousness and there is an impatient quality to much of the city’s culture.  Its effect on the democratic nature is quite simple.  Things that take time, such as line-ups and bureaucracy are detested.  At a larger level, things such as democracy and debate are also seen to take time and therefore seen as not really that important. This enables a sort of individualism to govern the city to the extent that government is often seen as invisible or superfluous by many. For example, in the 2004 provincial election, Premier Ralph Klein decided that he was not going to discuss health care during his campaign because “it would take too much time to get into.”  Klein’s decision was supported by most in the province and by many in the city.  He was returned to office with an overwhelming, if slightly smaller majority than in the past.

 

The impatient and auto-centric rhythm of the city has a major impact on social difference and inequality.  The messy and time-consuming realities of social difference and inequality are pushed away by a profound sense of denial that I refer to in more detail below. This denial of difficulty and difference keeps many of the city’s residents on a quick pace, which is filled up by shopping, labour, sports contests, and more shopping.  Even though there is not much going on in the city, few people seem able to slow down and take things slowly.  One of the worst things that you can be called in Edmonton, and in Alberta more generally is lazy.  All social problems, ranging from racism towards indigenous peoples, poverty, crime and illness are seen by most as stemming from a lack of hard work.  As a result of this terror, people are constantly on the go and seem endlessly obsessed with working and saving. It is as though to sit would mean that one would have to know one’s self and one’s place, whereas to keep moving is to foreclose a reckoning with these realities. This has had a significant impact on many of the city’s non-white residents.  Like in most capitalist colonial places, the colonial bourgeoisie is uninterested in non-white people except to the extent they want to become part of the project of surplus extraction, which in Edmonton, is very much tied to the extraction of natural resources and the production of heteronormative and commodified happiness.  So hard work is the mantra, and to not visibly produce is seen as behaviour that borders on the criminal.  In addition to the terror of being lazy, the terror of being labeled a complainer is equally powerful.  As a result, few non-white residents speak about racism in the city except in the most hushed tones.

    

To be sure, this made intellectual life very strained for me.  The religion of hard work meant that intellectual life, the slow and deliberate discussion and critique of ideas for the purpose of education and hopefully social change, was treated with suspicion by many in the city including those at the university.  Many students and faculty alike, by and large, only seemed interested in quantifiable results, both in the classroom and in research.  Thus, the idea of the classroom as a space for dissent was anathema since dissent not translatable in the measurement of faculty performance, nor was it translatable on the job market.  Difficult and somewhat complicated concepts such as homophobia were seen as suspect, both because they challenged students ethics, but also because they made the world seem much less black and white, and less immediate than they had been told it had been.  In addition, faculty at the U of A are policed by virtue of an evaluation system that crudely measures research output and pays little attention either to the quality of what one was producing, or to forms of work that cannot be crudely measured.  

 

Edmontonian Beauty

 

I

The suburban dystopia film is a recent development.  In my opinion, it is a new genre in Hollywood cinema that pays attention to the shifting political economy of space and desire in North America.  Although films in this genre vary, they are distinctive in the following ways.  First, unlike much previous Hollywood films, which it seems, are either set in small towns or big U.S. cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, these films are set in, and remain within, the suburban areas attached to these major urban centres.  Second, they take as their subject matter the inherent and unique problems that arise from the living conditions of suburban life. Third, these films excel at dramatising the contradictory nature of suburban life that promises on the one hand, happiness, safety, and quiet yet which in reality delivers something much different.  In fact, the hallmark of these films is: what is promised is indeed so unsatisfying that only a nervous ritual repeated by its inhabitants (about how good everything is) succeeds in blunting the deep human alienation which these spaces give rise to.  A number of films emerged in the mid to late 1990s which I take to be emblematic of this genre, among the most notable being Ice Storm, Pleasantville, Magnolia and Happiness.  And, in 2000, this genre reached its high point with the smash success of the film American Beauty.

 

II

 

While American Beauty is a brilliant comment on the alienation and the political and erotic repression in suburban life, one of its limitations is that we are led to believe that everyone in the suburbs is white.  This is true for much of the suburban dystopia genre.  While some of us may want to assume that the suburbs are white, the reality is quite different.  Not only are the suburbs not white, but suburban life, and Edmonton is no exception here, is designed to repress expressions of social difference, be it ethnocultural, sexual or political, in the name of uniformity.  As witnessed in the post-9 11/01 period, an uneasy hostility exists when white power is challenged, and a more overt hostility is expressed when that power is challenged directly.  In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Centre, anti-Islamic and anti-Arab racism and terror was palpable.  In an essay I wrote in the immediate aftermath of 9/11/01, I wrote:

 

I could feel the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim terror every time I moved.  Could hear it, see it.  In the aftermath of September 11, it seemed as though every Muslim woman I saw was wearing a special pain. Losing weight and looking gaunt.  Not knowing where to turn.[3] This is not new.  Racism, or the repression and denial of ethnocultural difference, as many have argued, is integral to the organization of contemporary capitalism in all its forms, both at the level of production and consumption.  What few have argued, it seems to me, is the way that racism is literally built into the suburban structure or fabric.  The suburb is designed with a fundamental xenophobia in mind.  In that it is built to reproduce the homophobic nuclear family, an always already repressive structure, difference is always seen as a threat.

 

III

In Alberta, as you may know, it is politically incorrect, if not extremely dangerous, to talk about Marxism, communism, or anything else that counters the cult of the individual.  In a first year class in which I teach Marxism, the suburban dystopia film serves as an example of dialectics, a key principle of Marxism. I explain that these films demonstrate the extent to which, via their distortion of reality, that life, perhaps especially in contemporary capitalism, is not what it appears to be.  In fact, I argue that suburban dystopia films demonstrate the classic theory of ideology outlined by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, which is that, in “all ideology men (sic) and their relations appear upside-down as in a camera obscura.”[4] I realized the benefits of using the suburban dystopia film as a teaching tool after I had one of the worst undergraduate classes during my stay there.  It was during my lecture on Marxism and sport, and while introducing Marxism, I decided to juxtapose it to voluntarism and free will.  In order to demonstrate my point, I also chose not to refer to arcane theories about Marxism, as they may have been relayed to us by people such as Bertell Ollman, Louis Althusser and so on.  So my point of reference was a snippet of the local CBC Radio morning news I heard that day, which featured two medical doctors debating the question of funding for provincial health care.  To my utter dismay, I heard one of the doctors arguing that if people in Alberta “chose not to be sick” then there would be less strain on the health care system and it would run more smoothly and not need the major infusions of cash that we all know it needs.

 

After explaining the story, and the fact that I found it absurd that a medical doctor could be arguing that people choose to be sick, there was a torrent of hostile comments from many of my students.  I was accused of being a communist, and told to go back to Toronto, and was essentially not permitted the opportunity to finish the class. 

 

III

Recently, a black friend comes to visit me in Edmonton; he is visiting from Toronto, and seems to like the quiet and the quirky energy of the city.  As a Torontonian, he is used to dense public spaces, long urban walks, varying degrees of anonymity, and, every so often, brief and friendly chats with acquaintances he might run across.  When he arrives in Edmonton, he looks forward to doing the same.  After a day of walks, hanging out in cafés, in and around the downtown, he arrives at some conclusions.  When I see him later that day, he asks me:  “Do people stare at black folks here?”  I reply that they do, and that I often feel stared at, largely by white folks, in most parts of the city.  I also tell him that when I am tired of the stares, I head off to Chinatown, north of the city’s downtown, where there is some degree of anonymity. 

In addition, I tell my friend that I find Edmonton a strangely spectacular city.  In many respects, it’s all about the look.  The look in fact governs sociality in the city.  Things pertaining to the visual take on a greater degree of importance here than in more densely populated spaces. In that sense, it still is like a small town, I suppose, where people feel a need to keep a closer eye on things.  But in addition, there can be a piercing and intimidating quality to the look, which can have the effect of a repression. As such, I look for answers.  I find Guy Debord’s aphoristic Society of the Spectacle useful.  Debord underlines the ways that the spectacle, or the regime of the visual works to reproduce dominant relations of production.  Debord suggests that spectacle becomes the ruling means in which contemporary capitalism secures and reproduces itself.   Debord begins by stating that: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”[5]  Moreover, he notes that “the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production.”

 

While Debord’s work discusses the way that images circulate in popular culture, there is less emphasis on what happens from the point of view of the one being looked at.   Here, Frantz Fanon’s discussion of racism in France in the early 1950s, especially his discussions of the way that black bodies are cut and policed via a colonizing gaze, continues to be extremely relevant.  The cutting and piercing way that the look works to reproduce dominant relations, is often palpable. 

 

IV

What I neglect to mention to my friend, only because I realise it somewhat later, is that it is not simply black folks who are under the gaze in Edmonton.  What I discover is that anyone who deviates from the norm, or what we could call the American Beauty look is subject to the gaze.  Gay, trans, or straight often receive the look, which is at one and the same time a look of curiosity, policing and desire.  Perhaps, I wonder to myself, this fact explains the high number of critical folks who read Michel Foucault here, over that of any other theorist.  Foucault’s privileging of panopticism and surveillance, outlined in such books as Discipline and Punish are useful to explaining the way that social spaces are organized with the concept of looking in mind.  So we must add Foucault’s observations to that of DeBord, Marx, and Fanon, in order to put forward our reading of the city and its proto-urban or sub-urban structure. 

 

This structuring gaze and regime of the spectacle has a devastating effect on the public culture of the city. One of the primary ways this form of colonialism works is via the organization of physical space and the organization of sight.  In other words, the role of visual culture, or the privileging of a certain kind of gaze, is crucial to the making of physical space in Edmonton.  In Edmonton, the organization of sight and space are intricately related; in fact, the occupation of sight and space are indispensable forms of power for those who rule.   Literally, space is organized in order to not jeopardize or undermine the safety that this gaze requires. Thus to hold the gaze is to hold physical space.

 

These observations help to underline the ways that visual culture is used in conjunction with an organization of public space in order to reproduce colonialist relations, which include what Gary Kinsman, in another context, calls the “regulation of desire” and the cultural, political and economic repression of non-white peoples.  At the level of sexuality, one is confronted with an aggressive and almost manic heterosexuality, both at the level of masculinity and femininity.  While we know that gender is indeed performative, it seems to take on a hysteric dimension in the city, whereby any deviation from the gender norm would signal queer sexuality, something that for many people is far too risky to be revealed.  Gays and lesbians, it seems to me, are tolerated to the extent to which they help to reproduce the cult of the individual and the spectacle.  The form of beauty that gays and lesbians wish to create is only sanctioned not only to the extent that it does not challenge or upset the regime of heterosexuality, but also, to the extent that it does challenge the sanctity of the look.  Gay men, for example, are only capable of being read as such if they are very queen-y and out in a certain femme-y kind of way.

 

V

In that sense, or as a result of a fear of the gaze, most people drive cars.  Car culture in the city did not spring up by accident.  In addition to heavy lobbying from the oil industry to keep building roads, it just so happens that the public transit system is very weak, save for the area linking up the downtown to the University of Alberta, and the routes leading to the West Edmonton Mall.  In this regard, more research needs to be done, in terms of critical cultural geography and its relation to sight.  But either way, public and visual culture is intricately related.  Moreover, the use of roads, which occupy an inordinate proportion of the city’s landscape, is a crucial factor.  Outside of rush hour and lunch hour, the downtown is largely vacant, and when I walk in these spaces, I am often one of very few pedestrians.  When I arrived in the city, an acquaintance used the word “post-apocalyptic” to describe this feeling.  He was right.

 

VI

     At a recent panel discussing black music in Edmonton, entitled “How to be Hip?” I make my pitch for a move away from authenticity.  In my remarks as a panelist, I call for more of a sense of irony in terms of how black folks in Edmonton both see and present themselves.  I say this because I feel that at this point, Edmonton is a city without irony.  There is no sense that human identity is constructed socially, and there is something outside or against these constructions.  Without irony, a girl must act as a “girl”, a boy must act as a “boy,” and ethnicity becomes a rigid box that people must slot themselves into — white, black, latino, East Asian, etc. In terms of blackness, it means that versions of authentic blackness, which are highly contrived and market driven, carry an incredible weight among the city’s young people.  Such things as hip-hop and basketball become normative, and are very important factors in the overdetermination of identity among young black folks in the city.

 

     The call for irony is akin to the use of dialectics in the suburban dystopia film.  It is an attempt to see outside the spectacle, which has no room for irony. Both of these positions help to illustrate that there is something else at work in the making of human identity underneath, around, and above the spectacle.  Pertaining to blackness, I read a well known quote from Stuart Hall at the beginning of my remarks: “The fact is ‘black’ has never just been there…it has always been an unstable identity psychically, culturally, and politically… something constructed, told, spoken, not simply found.”[6]

 

VII

In Edmonton, much like other Canadian cities, and much like the work of these suburban dystopia films, all is purportedly well and good.  The city, especially in its latest phase, is undergoing a project of gentrification and boasts of itself as a mutlicultural and tolerant city.  Yet, on the ground, things are rather different.  Much like other prairie cities, the toll of the genocide against indigenous peoples in the country is palpable — extreme and continual.  One sees aboriginal peoples when walking throughout the downtown core and especially the eastern parts of the downtown.  By and large, these people are the walking evidence of the colonialism and capitalism necessary in producing the thing we call Canada.  While walking through this space, one also sees the other ideological and repressive state apparatuses designed to reproduce genocide, which include liquor stores and an astonishingly heavy police presence.  The concentration of police in the city’s downtown east side dwarfs the concentration of police in other parts of the city. This police presence acts to incarcerate and subjugate indigenous peoples in the city and, given the new move to gentrification, as well as acting to protect the middle class from having to come to close to these brutal colonialist realities. 

 

VIII

     Some time ago, Freud noted that repressions begin with a “no.”  His words are useful, and can be used in addition to the work of Debord, Fanon, and Foucault.  He writes: “A negative judgment is the intellectual substitute for repression, its “no” is the hallmark of repression, its certificate of origins.”[7]  Of course, these repressions work at the individual and collective levels. And, like everything else, they have a physical, emotional and psychic component.  These repressions also come in the form of denials.  As a result of the spectacle, much of the less sanguine parts of the city (which include much of life here) are denied in an attempt to show a good face.  In this sense, the suburban dystopia film is once again useful here.  There are several no’s which help to make up the official mythology of Edmonton.  These include denials about the nature of poverty, which was made famous by Ralph Klein’s drunken escapade in the Beaver House mens’ shelter in the winter of 2001.  Klein’s drunken exhortations to those staying at the shelter to “get a job,” in addition to his throwing of pocket change at these men, was evidence of the triumph of the cult of the individual and its pernicious and hegemonic way in structuring the cultural common sense.  Moreover, it was a classic example of the repression/denial about the city and the effect of neo-liberal policies on the city’s inhabitants. 

In addition, the no’s take on a more mundane tone, as was witnessed during the World Championships of Track and Field, which were held in Edmonton in August of 2001. At that point, a British reporter, who was upset with the ‘dead’ nature of the city, especially in terms of its nightlife, pilloried the city and referred to it as Deadmonton.[8]  In addition, he also wrote that he wished that the IAAF had chosen a livelier city, such as Barcelona, in order to host the games.  After these comments, the no’s rained down on the British reporter, as if to say he was dead wrong about his observations.  Yet underneath the protestations, many recognized the bitter truth of his observations.

 

XI

     As a result of what I have said above, Edmonton is not really an inviting city.  To be sure, there are very friendly and inviting people here, but it is not easy to glean this when one arrives at the airport or the bus depot.  Invitations, and warm greetings, to those deemed as outsiders, would fundamentally alter the cultural politics and social fabric of the city.  A change in this regard would involve developing a vibrant street culture that would require a fundamental reconciliation with the hegemony of cars and parking lots in the city.  The hegemony of the automobile is something that I have attempted to grapple with since my arrival here.  A couple of years ago, on a Sunday, during a particularly icy January deep freeze, I sat in my living room in the Oliver area of the city and listened to car after car whiz by.  I was stupefied. I simply couldn’t understand where everyone was going on such a cold day, which was, I recall the third or fourth day of the deep freeze.  I surmised then that the automobile was a fetish object (a sort of moving live camera) that enabled the spectacular relations that shape the racial and sexual politics of the city.  I suppose if folks were to slow things down given that there really isn’t that much to do in Edmonton, they might have to come to terms with how they have structured their lives, and how alienating is the racist and misogynist homophobia which structures the city.

 

IX

     The struggle over the remaking of public space and visual culture, and the remapping of physical space in Edmonton is ongoing.  Perhaps the most recent challenge to the cult of the individual, and the triumph of spectacle occurs in the city’s burgeoning anti-war movement, the likes of which the city has never seen.  In addition to it being a call for “peace” and a cessation of the U.S.-led bombing of Iraq, there seems to be something else for this radically multicultural group.  The thousands of people who convene in the city’s downtown come from all across the city.  The large proportion of Arab Canadian and South Asian Canadians – Hindu, Muslim, Christian, otherwise, many of whom have never participated in the political life of the city to date, seem intent on establishing a new political economy of space and desire here. Of course, this demand is not unrelated to the demand to stop the bombs and bombing that are exploding halfway across the world. 

 

afterword

When I presented this paper for Halifax, there were generally intriguing and interested responses, with one exception.  One audience member, a white woman who had grown up near Edmonton, implicitly accused me of being a big-city snob and looking down on Edmonton from that vantage point.  To be specific, she was critical of the laughter in the room that followed some of my observations.  She suggested that I was intentionally trying to provoke laughter in my essay.  After being miffed at her question, I responded that this was not at all the case.  I pointed out to the audience member that what I was trying to do was open up a space to think about Edmonton from a place of critique, rather than a place of neurotic celebration, which was the custom.  Moreover, I tried to suggest to her that critique was a necessary ingredient in the growth of any city, and that neurotic celebration, the repetition of the mantra everything is good, would not do us any good.

 

After thinking about the question after the conference, I came to a couple of observations.  First, I found it interesting that the audience member did not dispute or disagree with my claims and arguments.  Rather, I felt that she was more uncomfortable with the fact that her town, for she was an Edmontonian for many years of her life, was being critiqued and yes, laughed at by some of the audience members who had had similar experiences as myself.  In addition, given the racial dynamic of the room, where many who laughed were non-white, I came to the realization that this form of questioning mirrored the kinds of denial that I was so frustrated with, and that I had dealt with for many years.  The question itself and the hostility that I felt with it, was a form of Edmontonian Beauty, which does not hear and denies criticism until the point when things explode.  I felt saddened and angered by the force and shape of this denial, and the silencing of voices, particularly non-white, on which it was predicated.

 

     If there was a criticism of the essay in my opinion, it has to do with the fact that I did not address the rampant and systemic poverty in the city, which cuts across “race” and gender.  During the five years that I lived there, I lived in three different middle class neighbourhoods, one was in the Riverdale flats, another in the Oliver neighbourhood and the third downtown.  In each place, I was struck by what appeared to be a constant stream of people, a large proportion of who were seniors, walking by the garbage bins in the alleys outside my living spaces looking for bottles to collect and exchange.  After thinking about it for some time, I realized that this reality was once again at odds with the repressive reality that suggested that Edmonton, owing to the massive oil and gas revenues of the province, was extremely wealthy and that poverty was non-existent there.   Moreover, after doing some research into the matter, I realized that much of this poverty was produced in the 1990s, as the provincial government of Ralph Klein, in an attempt to balance the budget, slashed social programs across the board, including those that sustained society’s most vulnerable members, and kicked thousands of Albertans off the welfare rolls.  While it is true that the government of Alberta, and the city of Edmonton, is massively wealthy, it is certainly not being shared by many of those living there.  In fact, the massive wealth coexists with a stupefying stinginess, and a fear to spend any of this money on what the society desperately needs.  If anything, this profound and publicly visible poverty, which did not include the very significant and systematic poverty that is privatized and unseen in the city’s suburbs, was emblematic of the another, more real side of Edmonton —the repressed other half of Edmonton’s self-presentation as a city without poverty. 

 

If I could say one thing in order to define Edmonton, it would be to that it is a city that cannot recognize, support and sustain vulnerability.  In addition, it cannot seem to support vulnerability’s corollary — tenderness.  Whether it is economic, sexual, cultural or political, vulnerability cannot be fully or sufficiently understood in Edmonton. When it is revealed in the public sphere in its many forms, it is often foreclosed.  This foreclosure means that expressions of vulnerability are routinely dismissed, laughed at, or brutalized.  Vulnerablility is that which seems most repressed in the colonial project of making Edmonton.  What vulnerability needs — compassion, love, understanding, time and investment (economic and otherwise) — cannot exist within the colonial logic of the city and its manic project of surplus and resource extraction.  Here, resource extraction requires hard hearts and happy faces.  However, if vulnerability were allowed to exist, it would signal the beginning of an altogether different beauty, one less reliant on the external appearances of commodified happiness, and more focused on genuine interaction and reciprocity, with all living creatures human and otherwise.  This form of reciprocity is the promise that urban life has given us for centuries and it is something to be remembered, not foreclosed.

Accepting vulnerability that is more real, interior and complex requires investment, and in a place obsessed with the wiping out of deficits, this is its challenge.  If Edmonton could meet this challenge, it would become a very different place, and also, a very beautiful one.

 

 

 

 

Gamal Abdel-Shehid is an Assistant Professor at the School of Kinesiology and Health Science, York University.  He is author of Who Da Man? Black Masculinities and Sporting Cultures (2005).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Himani Bannerji, The dark side of the nation: essays on

multiculturalism, nationalism and gender. Toronto:

Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2000.

 

Debord, G.  The Society of the Spectacle.  New York:

Zone Books, 1999. 

 

Fanon, F. Black Skin, White Masks.  New York: Grove

Press, 1967.

 

Foucault, M. Discipline and Punish.  New York: Vintage,

1984.

 

Hall, S.  “New Ethnicities” In Black British Cultural

Studies, Edited by H.A. Baker Jr., M. Diawara and   

R. Lindbergh, London: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

 

Marx, K. and Engels, F.  The German Ideology.  Moscow:

Progress Publishers, 1976.

 

Spivak, Gayatri.  The Critique of Post-Colonial Reason:

Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. 

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.



[1] Himani Bannerji, The dark side of the nation: essays on multiculturalism, nationalism and gender. (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2000)

[2]  The word citizen is placed in quotations to refer to its dubious and unstable nature, which has been addressed by many, including in the Canadian context, Nandita Sharma.

[3]  It is common knowledge that most of the reprisals by neo-fascists towards Muslims, or those who looked like them, were taken out on those presumed to be the weakest and most defenseless, young children and women. 

[4] Karl Marx and F. Engels. The German Ideology. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 42.

[5] G. Debord. The Society of the Spectacle.  (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 12 

[6] Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities” In Black British Cultural Studies, (London: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[7]  Cited in Gayatri Spivak. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, 1999.

[8] Edmonton Journal, August 8, 2001, section A1.