Challenging Aesthetics: The Politics Of Universalism

  • Author / Creator
    Kootnikoff, David J.
  • In this dissertation, I identify an aesthetic tradition in settler literary texts that parallels the settler state’s political response to such policies as multiculturalism and Reconciliation. I argue that modern Canadian fiction in English continues the tradition of romantic art in Hegel’s strict sense. In particular, I examine the political impotence of what I call “Canadian romantic inwardness,” which models a subject who retreats from the social world into the realm of deep feeling. I demonstrate this by extending Hegel’s aesthetic model of reconciliation and his concept of “romantic fiction” (592) to the works of five authors writing in Canada - Michael Ondaatje, Fred Wah, Rohinton Mistry, Joseph Boyden and Eden Robinson.
    In “Chapter One: Reconciled Universalism: Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (1987), The English Patient (1992), Anil’s Ghost (2000),” I examine three of Ondaatje’s novels to introduce how Fredric Jameson’s “romance mode” (1975 154) operates through appeals to universalism to entice aspirants away from political engagement, which functions to leave systems of oppression in place.
    In “Chapter Two: Hybrid Universalism: Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill (1996),” I explore whether Diamond Grill disrupts or facilitates the settler state’s implementation of racial politics. I analyze Homi Bhabha’s concept of hybridity as a universalized condition and explore whether the text situates the racialized subject as responsible for the management of politics deployed by the settler state.
    In “Chapter Three: Reified Universalism: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995),” I ask if Mistry’s text universalizes Hegel’s aesthetic model as a political threat to existing historical conditions. Although the text is set in India and appears to have nothing to do with Canada, I argue support from state initiatives like the Writing and Publications Program (WPP) helps create the post-national context for novels like Mistry’s to express national values without explicitly referring to the nation.
    In “Chapter Four: Colonial Universalism: Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda (2013),” I explore whether the novel functions as a literary example of a colonial text “going native.” I suggest the text engages in what Scott Lyons refers to as “a bad kind of historical revisionism” by “reading our present desires into the past” (X-Marks 123) through an overreliance on the Jesuit Papers as source material that universalizes a version of an Indigenous subject amenable to Reconciliation efforts.
    In “Chapter Five: Gothic Universalism: Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (2000),” I argue the text displaces Canadian romantic inwardness through what Christopher Bracken calls a “gothic inversion” to expose the horrors of colonial violence that the settler state has inflicted on Indigenous peoples.
    In the “Conclusion: Grounded Normativity,” I explain that romantic inwardness is not a new phenomenon and demonstrate how romantic inwardness is normalized as a form of universalism in such state policies as multiculturalism and Reconciliation. I conclude that as an aesthetic tradition, and as a valourized mode of being, romantic inwardness threatens to promote the incommensurability of settler/Indigenous relations by not adequately addressing the historical conditions of colonialism. I conclude by suggesting that demystifying romantic fiction can expose its continued relevance in literary texts written in Canada and help improve the relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Spring 2022
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.