Professor Jody Berland takes a fresh look at what it means to be Canadian in her new book North of Empire: Essays on the Cultural Technologies of Space, published by Duke University Press. Launched last month and already labelled by critics as a major contribution to the fields of communication, cultural studies and geography, Berland’s book is a group of essays about how technology creates and transforms our sense of space.
Right: Jody Berland
“Technology has become the focus of our hopes and dreams; my book explores how this has come about and what it means,” says Berland. “I try to make vivid the various connections between technology and the spaces we make, live in, tell stories about, defend or seek to transform. In doing so, I explore the meanings and effects of some of the most powerful themes of the 20th century, including nation, progress, convenience, entertainment and technology itself.”
Focusing on the importance of space to understanding culture, Berland investigates how media technologies have given shape to things we often take for granted, such as territory, landscape, the local, the border, nature, music and time. Her essays concentrate largely on Canada and the United States and centre on the connections and disconnections between how space is traversed, how it is narrated and how it is used.
This theme is traced throughout the essays on topics ranging from free trade and the discourse of entertainment, to the history of player pianos in the context of a growing consumer society animated by the desire for convenience, to the emergence of satellite image technologies in relation to television forecasts and the exploration of space.
“We live in spaces that are shaped in part by technology – technological tools like railways, radio, musical instruments, optical devices – and by cultural technologies of social and institutional change, including nation building, storytelling, mapping, broadcasting, converging and instructing,” notes Berland. “At the same time, these technologies are constantly changing, which contributes to deeply felt tensions about who we are and where we belong.”
Berland chose the essay structure for her book since it allowed her to explore specific historical developments that illuminate her central questions: How has technological change affected the way we relate to musical instruments? In what ways has satellite photography changed the way we think about the planet? How has the television forecast altered the way we think about weather?
It is her hope that readers will pay close attention to particular political or narrative histories that have been made both real and imaginary through the emergence of technologies such as the radio and the Internet. Berland also hopes that they will understand the urgency of exploring these narratives and the ways in which they reinforce and contest one another in personal, cultural and political spheres.
Berland is program coordinator for the Canadian Studies Program in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies. She was recently awarded the Association for Canadian Studies 2009 Award of Merit, which acknowledged her contributions to the development and dissemination of knowledge about Canada. Specifically, the award honoured three different activities: the role she’s played as editor of TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies (from 1998 to present); the publication of a significant body of work exploring Canadian history, themes and scholars; and lastly, the cultivation of a new generation of scholars through graduate teaching.
Though the nomination for the Award of Merit was made before her book came out, some of the publications that inspired her win can be found in the new book.