The Trivialities of Nationhood: Music and Material Culture
Will Straw

Professor Will Straw presented the 2001 Memorial Lecture where he discussed the ways in which cultural aretefacts travel through the particular pathways of the national. Within national cultural spaces, the movement of artefacts from elsewhere is directed and redirected, slowed and quickened. These pathways and velocities of movement help to shape the character of what Orvar Lofgren once called the "thickening of belonging."  

In the lecture, Straw examined the 12-inch vinyl single, a particularly marginal kind of commodity which emerged in the early 1970s as the resolution to a number of "problems" confronting those involved in playing, producing and distributing club-oriented dance music. As a technology, the 12-inch single represented the accomodation of dance music recording to the new demands of superior club sound systems and enlarged club spaces that were often converted from industrial use. As a medium, the 12-inch single became the central form through which innovation within dance music was communicated between the various components of dance music culture. The 12-inch single became both the material basis of new expressive practices (extended dance tracks) and a commodity which interrupted or extended the movement of dance music into commercial markets.

This lecture was part of a broader engagement with the materialities of cultural life in Canada, and is part of an attempt to theorize the Canadian cultural commodity. The 12-inch single is intrinsically interesting, but like other examples it invites us to examine the ways in which Canadians serve as brokers or intermediaries in the adaptation of cultural forms to national contexts. At all levels of cultural production within English Canada, the brokerage of materials acquired elsewhere will almost always render cultural artefacts slightly out-of-step with any coherent and collective sense of cultural movement. Any legitimacy which foreign materials provide may be tarnished by the delays with which they are put into circulation, and by the sense of being out-of-step which results. These often produce a sense of the Canadian cultural commodity as "behind" within a particular regime of currency which is not typically of our making.

Will Straw is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Communications at McGill University. He has written extensively on popular music, urban culture and film studies.
He has co-edited many volumes, among them: Accounting for Culture: Thinking Through Cultural Citizenship (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2005); The Cambridge Companion to Rock and Pop (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Theory Rules: Art as Theory, Theory as Art (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996).

He is also author of many essays and book chapters and is an investigator in several major Canadian research projects, including The Culture of Cities (SSHRC), The Digital Cities Project (FQRSC) and Documentation and Conservation of Media Arts Heritage (SSHRC CURA).