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This article was downloaded by: [Willamette University] On: 05 April 2012, At: 12:42 Publisher: Routledge Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

Southern Communication JournalPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rsjc20

Contested collectives: The struggle to define the we in the 1995 Qubec referendumAlissa Sklara a

Doctoral student in the Department of Communication, University of Massachusetts, Amherst Available online: 01 Apr 2009

To cite this article: Alissa Sklar (1999): Contested collectives: The struggle to define the we in the 1995 Qubec referendum, Southern Communication Journal, 64:2, 106-122 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10417949909373126

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Contested Collectives: The Struggle to Define the "We" in the 1995 Quebec ReferendumAlissa Sklarn the last three weeks of October, 1995, the citizens of Canada developed an entirely new understanding of the concept of "nation." As temperatures fell and days grew shorter, the campaign leading up to the October 30th Quebec referendum became increasingly heated. Polls reflected almost evenly split allegiances among decided votersroughly 50% for and against the eventual separation of the province. Approximately 14% of registered voters remained undecided, and the campaigns on both sides threw all their energy into convincing the population to vote YES or NO. These campaigns solidified positions for both the separatist movement (represented roughly by the provincial Parti Quebecois and the federal Bloc Quebecois, but also composed of other organizations and committees), and the resulting countermovement, referred to as federalists (represented largely by the provincial Liberal party, the federal government and other of organizations and committees in the province and across the country). In many cases, the rhetoric of these campaigns resulted in the evolution of the platform, symbols, and narratives bound up in their positions. In the end, the astoundingly narrow defeat of the referendum question by a little over 1 % of the popular vote (which despite its obfuscating language, was generally perceived as whether Quebec should separate or not) made it clear that the campaigns and election process had led to a province and a nation bitterly divided over essential questions of identity, culture and history. The political and emotional fallout of this referendum continues to feed these highly contentious issues in 1999. At the root of impassioned pleas from both movement and counter-movement was a battle for control of the meaning of key concepts. Both sides struggled to establish their definitions of such ideals as pride, unity, people and history. And at the heart of these contestations was the concerted effort to securely anchor the meaning of the collective pronoun "we" ("nous" in French). The slippery notion of "the people" has played a part in Quebec politics for at least 40 years (cf. Charland 1987). Writes Michael McGee: "Typically, 'the people'justify political philosophies; their only concrete significance is their existence, for not even their identity is agreed upon by those who appeal to them. About the only point of agreement is that, in politics, 'the people' are omnipotent; they are an idea of collective force which transcends both individuality and reason" (238). In the context of Quebec politics, the real and evocative power of "peoplehood" has become acutely appreciated. Both the separatist movement and unity counter-movement took as their principle task the fixation of this identity. This article examines the separatist and federalist campaigns in the 1995 referendum in terms of their efforts to establish legitimate identity claims on Quebec voters. In attempting to interpellate Quebecers as particular kinds of political subjects, the two movements saw marked changes in their own positions and in the definitions and meanings of key symbols. I begin with a brief discussion of work done in the area of rhetoric and national identity; the second section analyzes the key strategies and symbols of the two campaigns and the third looks at the French and English newspaper coverage of the referendum issues, events and leaders.106

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ANALYZING THE 1995 REFERENDUM Herbert Simons argues that "movements are struggles on behalf of a cause by groups whose core organizations, modes of actions, and/or guiding ideas are not fully legitimated by the larger society" (100). This is certainly true of contemporary Quebec, for which the '95 referendum was an opportunity for legitimization of the Quebecois nation. This nationalistic struggle might also be fairly characterized at the time of the 1995 referendum by what Simons calls a "top-down" movement, or a struggle "by people in positions of institutional authority on behalf of a cause whose guiding ideas, characteristic modes of action, or organizational structures have not been fully institutionalized" (100). It is, however, worth remembering that the separatists began as a grassroots movement of sorts and grew to achieve increasing amounts of support, legitimacy and institutionalization over the years. While; the "Top-Down" categorization fails to adequately account for the popular base of support that put movement leaders in positions of power, and for the political ratification required of voters across the province, it does offer a satisfying point of entry into work on the rhetoric of social movements. Quebec offers an example of a movement integral to the subject of cultural identity and the problematic concept of the "nation". The 1995 referendum is interesting theoretically for a number of reasons, not least of which is the subject of identity constitution through discourse. Stuart Hall has argued that identity is played out in the relationships between subjects and discursive practices, and it is precisely those questions of discursive access, use and manipulation that concern me here. The concept of identity I'm borrowing is a strategic and decidedly non-essentialist one. It runs directly counter to any notion of what Hall called the "stable core of the self (Hall 3), of a unified, unchanging or "true" kernel of subjectivity. Hall reminds us that identification is always conditional, contingent on the imperfect projection of commonality with another person or group. It may require material and symbolic resources to sustain it, but identification is always fantastical, or, as Michael McGee has argued, "mythical" (24). This positions identification as a constant, on-going process of signifying practice "subject to the 'play', of differance," (Hall 3). In his writings on the rhetorical trope of "the people", McGee maintains that "'the people' are more process than phenomenon" (242, emphasis his). Hall expands on this idea: "since as a process it operates across difference, it entails discursive work, the binding and marking of symbolic boundaries, the production of 'frontier-effects'. It requires what is left outside, its constitutive outside, to consolidate the process" (Hall 3). Central to the issues of identity are what is excluded, what falls outside the parameters and margins of selected discourses, for these strategic absences prove definitive by the choice implied. The interplay of practice, text and subject is of importance to those studying the constitution of national identities. Hasian and Flores urge rhetorical critics to think beyond the inadequate traditional conceptions of nationness, so that the "crafting of a 'state' or 'nation' can therefore be considered a rhetorical performance" (92), drawing together the existing fragments of tradition, memories and histories. That this does not happen easily, instantaneously or unimpeded is a given; they see nation as as "the product of many layers of discursive units, where conflicting imaginations compete for the right of representation" (93). I would argue that the opposing discursive tendencies operative in the 1995 Quebec election were a snapshot of this forging process, in which nations are ultimately formed or dissipated. The popular trend towards separatism in Quebec has been predicated upon the identification of individuals with the larger goals of the movement. Charland's 1987 article "Constitutive Rhetoric: the Case of the Peuple Quebecois" described how movement leaders "addressed and so attempted to call into being a peuple quebecois that would legitimate the constitution of a sovereign Quebec" (134). This process involved the use of new terms ("Quebecois" instead of "Canadiens fmngais"), the re-appropria-

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tion of other terms into new political discourse (references to inhabitants of Quebec as a "pe