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What is a Canadian icon?

There are idols and there are icons. The star-making machinery that generates idols is familiar to us all from watching the spectacle of American Idol and its various clones, including Canadian Idol. Icons are of a different order. An icon is “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, especially of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc., considered worthy of admiration or respect,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). For example, the world-renowned classical pianist Glenn Gould has been called “Canada’s most famous cultural son.” What was it about Gould’s life and work that elevated him to such iconic status? The machinations of the recording industry were one factor, to be sure, but I want to argue that, in the final analysis, it was Gould’s constitution that made him an exemplary figure.

The term “constitution” has a variety of senses. At one level, according to the OED, it refers to the “make-up” of a person’s body. At a second level, it refers to a person’s “mental character” or “disposition.” At a third level, it refers to the “mode of organization” of a State, and the “body of fundamental principles by which a State is governed.” As a social anthropologist, I am inclined to regard the third definition as primary, and suggest that the physical and mental constitution of a person is shaped by the constitution of his or her society. On this account, it was the constitutionality of Gould’s life and work that resulted in his selection as a “representative symbol,” a Canadian icon.

The constitutional approach to the study of Canadian cultural production and identity that I wish to pursue by way of this blog is informed by my training in both anthropology and laws. Constitutional studies and cultural studies are normally poles apart due to the conventional disciplinary structure of the academy. However, due to my dual training, I have found that crossing them can be productive of many insights. My hypothesis can be put as follows:
A constitution is framed, and in turn provides the frame for the minds (and bodies) of those it governs. The mode of organization of the state structures the creative activity of the imaginary, such that in the arrangement of a poem or a painting one may catch a reflection of the constitution of the artist’s own society.

In the accompanying chapter, I examine the process by which a series of persons and things have come to be regarded as “representative symbols” of Canada, by relating their representativity – or “iconicity” – to their constitutionality. The personages range from Gould to Grey Owl, and Margaret Atwood to Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables; the things range from Habitat’67 to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and the clairphone to the zipper. I also fold the disciplines of law and anthropology into each other by examining what is constitutional about Canadian anthropology and what is cultural about Canadian jurisprudence.

It must be emphasized that this site is very much a work-in-progress, with many chapters still to be written (particularly those concerning Canadian material culture). Each of the parts will grow to include analyses of other persons, other things, and other disciplines besides those already listed. I would welcome your feedback along the way.

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