I spent a lot of time thinking about walls today – probably because today is the culmination of nearly a month of media hype over the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Guardian newspaper started posting videos about the evolution of the Wall in October, the CBC website devoted the section directly under the world headlines to showcasing their archive of Wall related items, the New York Times had interactive maps, and then there was the new link posted every few days by various Facebook friends about something or another Wall related. Today it culminated with stories of the Wall, the fall of communism, the end of the Cold War, and celebration of freedom everywhere. Q devoted the entire broadcast to the issues surrounding the Wall and various dividing walls built since 1989. All the major newscasts led off with images and sound bits from Germany then and now (even though that country celebrates unification on October 3). Among the celebratory posts on Facebook were commentary on the day in German in English, and an excellent video of Neil Young and Pearl Jam performing “Rockin’ in the Free World” that someone beat me to posting. What stood out to me was the symbolism of the wall in everything. The irony of MTV building a wall around a free U2 performance at the Brandenburg Gate made more ironic by the band performing a song written in Berlin in late 1989 and with a video incorporating an icon of East Germany the Trabant – the song is One for the non-U2 fans out there and it just might be the best song they ever wrote from their best album Achtung Baby. Then there is the beauty of dominoes painted by children from around the world marking 1.5km of where the Wall stood that were knocked down at the same time the Wall was breached 20 years ago.
The Berlin Wall as a symbol of a place divided only to be united again seemed to echo the current crisis in Canadian history I’ve spent the past few days refreshing my memory on. The historians in their typical Canadian politeness locate the crisis in the field in the fragmentation that began in the 1960s and continued through the 1990s with the emergence of various forms of social history. But they way the results of fragmentation are discussed make it evident that for all the attempts to make Canadian history inclusive of the marginalized and ‘others’ of society it has actually begun to build walls within the discipline. Scholars may all be writing about the same country and be able to talk to each other about an abstract Canada but they have created divisions they seem unwilling to re-evaluate to find a common ground that puts Canadian history together again.
Fragmentation has done great things. It reacted against grand narratives to break the past down piece by piece and see the exceptionalism of each of those pieces. Without fragmentation the nuanced, diverse, layered stories of Aboriginal peoples, women, men, ethnic groups, labour, the environment, and countless other “others” would not exist. The movement towards fragmentation was a reaction against the teleological, great men, great event histories that dominated the field until the 1960s, but that framework was broken down around the same time the Berlin Wall fell – the hold-out Blisses and Granatsteins not withstanding. Canadian history was left richer for fragmentation, but no closer to understanding the country as a united entity and this is the crisis all those historians who participated in the fragmentation are beginning to recognize. McKay’s liberal-order framework goes some of the way to remedying this. Yet it is limited to 1840-1940 and political, economic, and political-intellectual topics and has been shown to work just as well for understanding the marginal others as it does for the liberal mainstream of the time period. Others are hesitant to attempt to formulate a framework to run alongside McKay’s for fear the request to bring the disparate stands of Canadian history together will return us to a pre-cultural turn focus on politics, war, and great men.
There is hope for Canadian history and it is in the form of a new generation of scholars currently working through graduate studies. It is a generation marked by rapid often jarring change, and a world that seems to get smaller while growing beyond reasonable proportions. They witnessed the end of the Cold War as children and youth, grew-up along side the internet, witnessed 9/11 as young adults, remember when MuchMusic and MTV showed music videos not exercises in the narcissism of celebrity culture, and tend to not just question everything but also look for answers. While the established academics of Canadian history are fretting over the crisis brought about by fragmentation, the new generation is quietly chipping away at walls they created. They acknowledge the differences between genders while seeking to re-discover the common ground, wonder about the power-dynamics of performance in Aboriginal-White relations, see how taxation united people in a new political relationship to the state, and follow the flow of water to better understand environmental changes. In the process of investigating their topics they borrow theory and frameworks from everywhere. Maybe it is the generation that will put Canadian history back together through recognizing the fragmentation and looking beyond it to see how the pieces fit together to make a united, whole image of Canada’s past. This is pure speculation as I am still trying to figure out what it all means and where my work fits. I look at the historians-in-training around me, those inside and outside the Canadian field, and can’t help feel excitement at the imagination and innovation they bring to their topics. It is an exciting time to be a grad student and an exciting generation to be part of. We have yet to show what we are capable of and what the impact of watching Walls fall, planes crash, and technology shrink the world will have on our interpretation of the past.
This is just because I can’t resist and it is still Nov 9 in BC!