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Review

Desiring Canada: CBC Contests, Hockey Violence, and Other Stately Pleasures

By Patricia Cormack and James F. Cosgrave

November 20, 2013

Review By Eric Sager

What kind of community turns to a coffee shop for meaning? In what country would a search for Seven Wonders collapse into ironic parody? What kind of imagined community cherishes national ownership of a professional sport that is played mainly in another country? Such are the questions to which Patricia Cormack and James Cosgrave apply the answers of Canadian sociology. Canadian culture and the perennial quest for Canadian identity are venerable subjects, of course. The originality here lies in the authors’ insertion of desires and pleasures into the analytical frame, and their insistence that the state is deeply involved in the enactment and management of pleasures.

Five chapters explore different dimensions of Canadian pleasures in their connections to identity and the state: the CBC’s audience-participation contests, Tim Hortons coffee shops, ice hockey and hockey violence, gambling, and television comedy. The result is a sophisticated sociology, its debts going back to Durkheim and Weber, and also to Habermas and Bourdieu; it is also a very Canadian sociology, indebted to Canadian studies of media and communications. In this sociology, the quest for identity through consumption of pleasures appears in mediated representations, especially those of television, where discourse and symbolic clusters are readily available for scholarly unpacking.

In many ways, and not just in the Harper government’s re-inscription of Canada as a warrior nation, the state takes on the work of integrating desires and identity. The CBC collects Canadian objects and icons, in part because the CBC is constantly re-inventing itself as the centre of national-identity work. Tim Hortons is the conflation of identity politics with marketing, and the coffee chain is not just a site but also a model in a country where the citizen-voter has become a consumer in the eyes of political marketing strategists.

The chapter on ice hockey is a welcome digest of recent work on sport and Canadian identity. Hockey “enables the state to dress itself in the robes of pleasure and identity” (100). The state and its agents in the media engage hockey in a “civilizing project”: the televised spectacle and its macho commentators confine violence and fighting to the ice, and polite, well-groomed masculinity to off-ice behaviour. Competition pressures the CBC into maintaining its support for hockey violence, despite hand-wringing anxiety over concussions.

The legalization and promotion of gambling offers the most obvious example of the role of the state in the regulation of desires. Gambling is a neoliberal reconciliation of state collectivism with the freedom of individuals to pursue desires; it is “a form of governing citizens through individualizing them” (170). Finally, in what may be their most original chapter, the authors examine the political frame of comedy, in which lampooned politicians and governments become signifiers of Canadianness.

Is the consumption of pleasures connected to the unresolved sense of being Canadian, to a peculiarly Canadian longing for completion and existential security? You may not always be convinced by their answers, but Cormack and Cosgrave have certainly given us a provocative read. One wonders how their analysis might apply to identity and desire in the virtual universe of Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps they will now apply their keen insights to that immense challenge.

Desiring Canada: CBC Contests, Hockey Violence, and Other Stately Pleasures
By Patricia Cormack and James F. Cosgrave
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013, 257 pp.  $22.36 paper. $49.00 cloth