A Canadian Identity
Experimental articulation through a dynamic system of metaphors
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Part of an experimental
collection of documents on collective identity
Towards an image-based language: the current socio-political function
The notion of "Canada" is more and more a challenge to comprehension.
In order to clarify understanding of such complexity, statesmen make use
of notions which are both simple and symbolic. "The House of Europe" and
"European Space" are examples of this approach. Such metaphors serve as
vehicles to suggest approaches with many strategic implications. They fulfil
the function of codes to communicate among cognoscenti and as key phrases
in the interaction with public opinion.
The fundamental problems of Canadian integration raise the question
of the extent to which metaphors currently used are of adequate richness
to articulate strategic options which are both useful and viable. The dilemma
remains the necessity, on the one hand, to reflect the richness of the
complexity of which any Canadian strategy must take account, and, on the
other, to make available an integrative image capable of "enchanting" people
seeking some sense in the development of their personal and professional
lives. This dilemma is made all the more problematic by the multiplicity
of cultures and schools of thought, as well the diverse marginal groups.
Why this emphasis on metaphors instead of relying on the language of
models? In part this is because in the elaboration of strategic policy
it seems less and less useful to employ the old language in which so many
reports have been presented. Despite the level of expertise and the complexity
of the models, such reports have tended to be "forgettable", in the words
of the Economist in describing the recent South Report (1990). We are being
overtaken by events.
Media communicability has become increasingly important to the life
of political initiatives. It is the ultimate constrain in social and political
transformation. It is therefore useful to note the developing role of metaphor
in articulating or opposing social transformation. Boris Yeltsin recently
chose to describe Mikhael Gobrachev's compromise reforms as a "marriage
between a hedgehog and a snake". Such imagery, of which there are many
examples, easily undermines the best of initiatives.
It would seem that the struggle has shifted from the world of ideas
to the world of images. Commentators everywhere remark on the sterility
of proposals in the eyes of voters. Instead of the "power of imagination",
there is a bankruptcy of imagination.
The cognitive function of metaphors
Recent research has demonstrated the cognitive function and influence
of metaphors in the most disciplined and rigorous thinking. Examples in
the natural sciences, and even in fundamental physics, are cited. The same
is true in the social sciences and notably in understanding of organizations
and their management. It appears that metaphors, whether explicit or implicit,
are essential to the ordering of cognitive elements. Furthermore it is
now almost impossible to extricate them from the language of many disciplines.
As examples the following may be noted: a "field" of study, the "direction"
of research, a "line" of argument, a "target" audience, "mobilization"
of resources. It has been shown that, beyond its rhetoric functions, the
choice of a metaphor may be crucial to the kinds of communication which
become possible or impossible. A recent study of the metaphors underlying
the Gulf War even suggests that "metaphors can kill".
A new inspiration: the spiritual function of metaphors
All the religions use metaphors to render comprehensible the most complex
and subtle notions. It is with the help of metaphors that people are most
profoundly touched in relation to those hopeful factors which give meaning
to personal and social life. And it is with the assistance of certain metaphors
that new inspiration has been given to cultures fatigued by old formulas
and received ideas.
The importance of keystones
It is not that models are ineffective or inadequate. The difficulty
is rather in the incompatibility of models, however useful in different
specialized domains, and in the weaknesses which emerge as a result in
any supposedly integrated strategy. Suspicion concerning integrative models
has become a wise precaution.
Beyond any structural modifications, the key to the success of future
strategies appears to lie in the imaginative manner in which valid, but
incompatible, initiatives are woven together. The challenge is highlighted
by the absence of models adequate to the reconciliation of "centralized"
and "market" economic strategies in the countries of Eastern Europe. There
are no available models because the challenge to the imagination transcends
the world of model builders by which strategies have been so influenced.
It could be concluded that new possibilities for Europe are to be found
beyond the strategic incompatibilities in which visions of its future tend
to become entangled.
It is metaphors which provide the imagination with "keystones" to balance
the tensions between tendencies which, without such integrative elements,
would appear incompatible. World governance in this sense is a question
of "imagination building" rather than "institution building". Governance
of Canada at the highest level should therefore focus attention on the
emergence and movement of policy-relevant metaphors -- that are capable
of rendering comprehensible the way forward through complex window of opportunity.
The challenge lies in marrying new metaphors to models to ensure the embodiment
of new levels of insight in appropriate organizational form.
A transcendental Canadian identity
The identity of Canadian is thus closely associated with the "gene pool"
of metaphors. From this the Canadian community may draw fruitful metaphors
in the formulation of responses to new opportunities and crises.
This vision of Canadian governance does not call for radical transformation
of institutions. Rather it calls for a shift in the way of thinking about
what is circulated through society's information systems as the triggering
force for any action. At present governance in the international community
is haunted by a form of collective schizophrenia -- a left-brain preoccupation
with "serious" academic models and administrative programmes, and a right-brain
preoccupation with the proclivities of public opinion avid for "meaningful"
action (even if "sensational;"). This quarrel between models and metaphors
could be transformed by focusing more effectively on the metaphoric dimensions
already so vital to any sustainable motivation of public opinion.
The identity of Canada should not be so closely linked to the seemingly
impossible task of maintaining a consensus on particular solutions as appropriate,
and therefore "correct". The identity to cultivate is should be detached
from this level of short and medium term preoccupation. This confusion
favours tokenism and unimplemented resolutions which in turn reinforce
cynicism, alienation and loss of credibility. In these times all simple
solutions eventually become problems, just all problems are in effect unpleasant
solutions. The creative opportunity is to cultivate instead an understanding
of how incompatible solutions can be woven together as phases over time
in a cycle of policies. It is metaphors -- such as crop rotation -- which
make comprehensible and credible such a complex approach. It is at this
level of conservation and generation of metaphors that may be found a dynamic
Canadian identity appropriate to a sustainable development.
How to proceed ?
What approach should be taken to the possibility of choosing a metaphor
to better articulate the identity of Canada in such circumstances? Five
criteria should be considered:
(a) Adequate to capture the variety of options: Clearly a metaphor
must be rich enough so that each may find in it the dimensions to which
he or she is sensitive. There is therefore advantage in highlighting those
which reflect the most advanced thinking of our civilization -- those touching
the frontiers of aspiration to explore our potential and articulating our
comprehension of the most complex domains. But, although of necessary complexity,
these metaphors must allow for simple comprehension, preferably permitting
clarification by rich and evocative imagery.
(b) Opening options: A useful metaphor must avoid the problem
of over-deterministic models which leave no "free space" for the imagination
to explore and make discoveries. Better than static metaphors, those which
embody a dynamic reality open more possibilities to the imagination. They
lessen the impression of exhaustiveness and determinism -- having less
of a function of a conceptual straitjacket. Such metaphors "seduce" and
enchant the spirit. Their meaning can be "mined" according to people's
degree of need and curiosity.
(c) Recognition of limitations: As with every model, a metaphor
can only give a partial image of a complex reality. And like a model, a
given metaphor may not be to the taste of everyone. A metaphor has a limited
audience (or a "market") which may be a function of culture, education
or age. Consequently any effort to impose a single metaphor is therefore
destined to failure (even though this may be disguised to the extent that
there may be resistance to the meaning carried by the metaphor, which is
then seen as a sterile dogma).
(d) Dynamic system of complementary metaphors: The limitations
of any given metaphor may be compensated, provided that it is seen as forming
part of a set of complementary metaphors. Then the weaknesses of one are
compensated by the strengths of others, and the dominating points any one
metaphor is constrained or checked by the insights brought by others. In
such a system of metaphors, each has more chance of finding an appropriate,
and even seductive, perspective than through any single metaphor.
(e) Recursive nature of metaphors selected: A complex system
is always a challenge to comprehension. This is also true in the case of
a system of metaphors. Such metaphors should therefore be chosen on the
basis of their individual capacity to provide some comprehension of the
system of which they are part. This criterion guarantees, to some degree
at least, the integrity and the coherence of the system.
In Search of an Adequate System of Metaphors
In the advertising and media worlds, considerable sums are invested
in research on the image of for a corporation or a brand. The choice of
political or strategic metaphors is usually done with much less effort
and without any "market research". What follows can only be considered
a first selection of possible metaphors, with all the reservations that
(a) Canada as an ecology of options: An ecological metaphor implies
a dynamic interplay of species, some in symbiosis others in competition
for available resources. The "species" in this case may be understood as
the political tendencies, factions, pressure groups, or strategic options
-- from the most conventional to the most marginal. There may be thousands
of species, from the largest to the smallest. It is up to each person to
understand the nature of this ecology and its cycles of energy, to find
in it the niches which can be occupied, and the appropriate dynamics with
respect to partners and competitors. Of course an ecosystem can be enriched
or impoverished by dynamic effects resulting from disequilibria in the
shorter or longer term. The system of metaphors, or ways of thinking, may
itself be understood as an ecology. This metaphor is better understood
by those sensitive to the environment and to the management of its many
(b) Canada as a physiology of interdependent organs: The State
has often been compared to the human body. This metaphor may be applied
to Canada in its entirety. What are its organs -- the Member States, Canadian
institutions? Should the notion of an organ not be extended to all organisations,
commercial bodies, and pressure groups? It is clear that what makes them
interdependent is the circulation between them of different forms of energy
and resources (notably information). The study of the physiology of this
body, its respiration, its digestion, the elimination of its waste products,
and even its development, may all be explored in terms of its regulatory
systems (nervous system, hormonal system, etc). The system of metaphors,
or ways of thinking, may itself be understood as a body of knowledge with
its organs and physiology. This metaphor would be most fruitful for those
sensitive to the notion of health, and especially to the health of the
body as a whole rather than of its organs taken individually.
(c) Canada as a nuclear fusion reactor: The great challenge for
the technology of the future is to master the energy resulting from nuclear
fusion. For many years all efforts have been focused on the way in which
to constrain the energies released in order to create the most propitious
conditions for the processes of nuclear fusion and the extraction of the
excess energy engendered. The challenge lies in the appropriate configuration
of elements which act as a container for the plasma -- a special form of
energy facilitating the fusion process. As for the configuration of Canadian
structures and processes, the difficulty lies in the fact that if the new
form of energy makes contact momentarily with the elements constituting
the container, it is denatured and completely loses its force in an unuseful
discharge. The Canadian identity, sought as a generator of new social energy,
suffers from similar constraints. It can only emerge in all its force to
the extent that it is not subject to this or that national or Latin american
structure -- structures which are, paradoxically, designed to create the
conditions propitious for its generation. The system of metaphors, or of
ways of thinking, may itself be understood as a configuration of elements,
of which each is necessary but is also capable of completely denaturing
(or "quenching") that form of comprehension which can only be based on
(d) Canada as an organic molecule of variable geometry: The notion
of variable geometry is part of the Canadian discourse as a way of reconciling
acceptance of different institutional structures. There are some organic
molecules, notably benzene (key to organic life), whose stability derives
principally from continuous alternation between a limited number (two to
five) distinct geometrical forms. This phenomenon of resonance permits
the existence of molecules in situations where the component structures
are impossible, or require a level of constituting energy which makes their
creation improbable. Such hybrid molecules, based on distinct geometries
in resonance, require less energy to ensure their stability than their
component elements. Is it not possible to envisage for Canada and identity,
or its structuring, based on an analogous form of resonance between component
structures which would otherwise be completely incompatible? After all,
the Canadian movement is based on the notion a structure appropriate to
the whole would be more stable and more "economic" that the disorderly
interactions between totally independent States. But such a structuring
could only emerge through the dynamic between more limited structures.
The system of metaphors, or ways of thinking, can itself be understood
as based on a dynamic resonance between more limited metaphors. This metaphor
is more readily understood by those sensitive to the apparently improbable
structures recognized by the natural sciences.
(e) Canada as a pattern of circulating traffic: It is perhaps
the network of roads and railways which represents the identity of Canada
in the most concrete and experiential manner. Most of the population has
acquired familiarity with traffic. Each is obliged to integrate, even at
a neuro-muscular level, certain rules and behaviours necessary to survival
in this network and in order to benefit from it. The movement of meaning
throughout the Canadian community may be understood as a movement of vehicles
in a complex network linking both central points, known to all, and positions
known only to specialists. From this perspective the main political schools
of thought and action take the form of major motorways with provision for
traffic in both directions, not to mention the so-called national or secondary
roads. Each road thus represents a "preoccupation vector" or a form of
collective action. But it is clear, in the light of the number of "accidents"
and "collisions", that people are far from having achieved the insight
appropriate to intersections and a "highway code" for the socio-political
equivalent. This is despite the rich range of possible models, experienced
on a daily and habitual basis: red lights, stop signs, traffic circles,
priority systems, tunnels, etc). The system of metaphors, or ways of thinking,
may also be understood as a configuration of distinct comprehension pathways.
This metaphor offers insight to any user of the road.
(f) Canada as a crop rotation cycle: Every peasant farmer understands
the necessity of crop rotation in a field in order to avoid the accumulation
of the negative consequences resulting from planting of an one species.
The farmer knows that, to ensure the sustainable development of his field,
he can grow one crop in that field for a period but must then replace it
by a different crop to remedy the defects to the soil caused by the first.
He may have to grow a third and a fourth species before finally returning
to the first in his crop rotation cycle. It is the cycle which guarantees
sustainability, not any particular crop. This well-tested approach suggests
the possibility that no one policy in a given domain can be maintained
beyond a certain period without accumulating negative side-effects. And
it is therefore with a distinct and complementary policy that these effects
may be partially counter-acted. Thus to guarantee any form of sustainable
development, a cycle of distinct policies is necessary in which each compensates
for the action of others. This is of course the implicit message of democracy
-- but what political party would publicly recognize the need for the policies
of others to compensate for the negative side-effects of its own? The identity
of Canada must necessarily emerge beyond the concepts and positions of
parties which each contribute to its definition. It is at the level of
the appropriately balanced cycle that the identity of Canada may usefully
be understood. The system of metaphors, or of ways of thinking, may itself
be understood as a cycle of metaphors, each with its strong and weak points.
It is clear that this metaphor will appeal most to those with agricultural
concerns -- and especially those concerned with so-called organic agriculture.
How many complementary metaphors are necessary to sustain insight into
the rich subtleties of the identity of Canada? Would it not be natural
for a major metaphor to be associated with each domain with which a major
policy or government ministry is associated -- or with each "general directorate"
of Canadian institutions? It would be possible to understand the identity
of Canada: as a system of navigation; as a collection of temples or ministries;
as an interplay of cultural spaces; as a system of learning and development
environments; as an olympiad of competitions; and as a building (as a way
of exploring the positive implications of the notion of a "Canadian fortress").
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