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Review of  Paths to Post-Nationalism

Reviewer: Ghislain Potriquet
Book Title: Paths to Post-Nationalism
Book Author: Monica Heller
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 22.2826

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AUTHOR: Monica Heller
TITLE: Paths to Post-Nationalism
SUBTITLE: A Critical Ethnography of Language and Identity
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2010

Ghislain Potriquet, Department of English and North-American Studies, University
of Strasbourg.


Monica Heller's ''Paths to Post-Nationalism'' can be read in a number of ways.
Above all, it is an invitation to put sociolinguistics into motion, i.e. to
consider languages and their speakers as constantly shifting objects of inquiry.
It also reads as a review of Heller's extensive fieldwork conducted throughout
Canada over the past three decades. Rich from her experience, the author calls
for a self-reflective sociolinguistics, one that understands ''why we construct
relations of social difference and social inequality the way we do'' (p. 7).
Heller therefore renounces all claims to objectivity or neutrality. This premise
makes ''Paths to Post-Nationalism'' a particularly insightful account of Canada's
problematic language duality since it looks at the issue from a different
perspective, one that goes far beyond the nation-state paradigm.


Chapter 1 explains why sociolinguistics ought to be conceived as a social
practice. The author begins by giving two examples that challenge common
assumptions about language and race; one is a fictitious, albeit revealing one.
In ''Pure Laine'', a popular TV series in Canada, a multiracial family
(French-Canadian, Haitian and Chinese) finds itself compelled to disprove those
assumptions episode after episode; they must ''constitute links that work for
them'' Heller explains (p. 5), and this observation leads her to argue for a
sociolinguistics that does not assume stability to be the norm. Instead,
mobility and multiplicity constitute the baseline (p. 4); diversity, inequality
and mobility must actually be understood as constitutive elements of emerging
forms of social organization, Heller argues (p. 9).

The author states her purpose very clearly: against the backdrop of a
''globalized new economy'', she aims to ''follow social processes across time and
space, and to see how agency and structure engage each other under specific
political economic conditions'' (p. 10). The rest of the chapter provides readers
with a useful survey of the history of Francophone and Anglophone Canadians,
with a particular emphasis on the contemporary period. The globalized new
economy, Heller observes, has operated a discursive shift, ''from a discourse of
rights to a discourse of profit, from the state as protector to the state as
facilitator of the producer'' (p. 20).

In chapter 2, Heller offers a personal account of how her interest in
sociolinguistics grew. Raised in Montreal, a city well-known for its
ethnolinguistic fragmentation (p. 31), she recalls her first direct
confrontation with the city's problematic language duality: working as a clerk
in a downtown hospital, she learned how to smile at the people at the counter
and wait for them to use either English or French to avoid any linguistic faux
pas. This first summer job taught her that normality is a construct that depends
on its actors, on what John Gumperz identifies as ''context'' (p. 33). Built on
this premise, the ''critical ethnographic sociolinguistics'' that Heller adopts
has the potential to explain ''the role of language in constructing the relations
of social inequality that shape our world'' (p. 34). The sociolinguist proceeds
with a convincing analysis of the role language(s) can play in the process of
organizing unequal relations of production and consumption (pp. 37-39). This is
the very process that Heller will examine in the following chapters, privileging
moments of social change.

Chapter 3 is an inquiry into the rise and fall of a secret society, l'Ordre de
Jacques Cartier (OJC, 1926-1965). Key to this chapter is the argument that OJC
laid the groundwork for the modernization of the discourse of Francophone Canada
in the late 1960's (p. 52). Founded in Ottawa in 1926, the society strove to
improve the socioeconomic status of Francophone Canadians; membership rose at
its peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when more than 10.000 members
actively served the cause. Its tactics included getting members elected to
school boards and town councils; it also attempted to gain economic clout by
buying small companies, a tactic that utterly failed and precipitated the demise
of the Order in 1965. But Heller puts this failure in its broader context: by
the early 1960s, Francophone Canadians, most of whom lived in Quebec, had
realized that their tactics needed to be tuned to the modern liberal-democratic
state model (p. 71). Quebecers thus moved from an understanding of their nation
as a racial and religious entity to a modern nation-state, where a French-first
language policy would play a fundamental role.

Chapter 4 takes us to an unusual place for a sociolinguistics study: a brewery.
In the late 1970s, Quebec was pursuing a ''francisation'' policy, and Heller
decided to take a closer look at ''the relationship between language practices in
everyday life and the discourse and practices of the institutions regulating
ethnonational and ethnoclass organization'' (p. 74). After an informative review
of the brewery's recent history, the author examines how different categories of
staff reacted to the ''francisation'' language policy. Heller's line of inquiry,
''critical ethnographic sociolinguistics'', yields quite interesting results:
Quebec's unilingual language policy did not make bilingualism less valuable (p.
91). Instead, it turned what was the characteristic of an underprivileged
working-class into an asset for the emerging middle class involved in
international trade.

Chapter 5 summarizes thirteen years of fieldwork conducted in the
French-language schools of Ontario, with a particular focus on the 1991-1996
period, when Heller studied a high school located in suburban Toronto. The
Ontario case is quite distinct from that of Quebec: schooling remains a crucial
means of self-preservation for French-speaking Ontarians who have no hope of
establishing the kind of political control over the Province enjoyed by
Quebecers. Besides, the variety of French spoken by Ontarians, the marker of a
distinctive, authentic identity, can be perceived as of little value in the
globalized new economy. ''L'Ecole Champlain'', that Heller surveyed, was
confronted with this very same problem: its curriculum sought to teach a
''decontextualized'' variety of French and to promote additive bilingualism (p.
103). This policy raised a number of problems for all categories of students,
whether working-class or middle-class, Anglophone or not. Heller concludes that
''new market conditions turn both identity and language into commodities that can
be traded together, but also separately'' (p. 112).

Chapter 6 and the subsequent chapters deal with the contemporary period. Each in
its own way illustrates Canada's neoliberal turn and its implications for
French-speaking Canadians: Heller identifies ''a shift from talking about rights
to talking about community economic development, from constructing language and
identity as inalienable heritage to constructing them as sources of added value''
(p. 115). This transition actually began in 1988, with the overhaul of the
federal Official Languages Act, which channeled monies toward the tertiary
sector. This shift led to an institutional reconfiguration, with the creation in
1998 of an ''Economic Development and Employability Network of Canada'', a
partnership between the federal government and a well-established national
francophone association (pp. 117-118). One of the specific targets of this
partnership is tourism, and the second half of chapter 6 takes us to central
Ontario, ''in a rural region of fields, lakes, and forests'' (p. 121), where a
Francophone village started to organize a summer festival in 2002. Heller
studied how villagers choose to ''market'' themselves; by taking a close look at
seemingly minor questions such as the Saturday night concert lineup or the
proper translation of ''pinchers'' into French, she shows how this community
grappled with complex problems pertaining to its identity and relation to other
Francophone communities.

Chapter 7 continues this investigation into the commodification of identity; in
this process, language plays a prime role as it serves as a guarantee of
authenticity, but it also compels those engaged in the marketing of their
identity to make difficult, sometimes paradoxical choices (p. 147). Heller notes
that the emergence and expansion of such ''ethnonational markets'' has caught
French-Canadians in their own net so to speak, since ''commodification
disconnects language from identity and therefore destabilizes the logic of
ethnonationalist politics, which require them to be intertwined'' (p. 150).
Heller illustrates this dialectic with two examples: a summer theater heritage
pageant in Eastern Ontario and a couple of Christmas markets in France, where
supposedly genuine French-Canadian items and food products are sold.

The second half of chapter 7 is devoted to the tertiary sector: a multimedia
postproduction company in Montreal, an environmentalist NGO and several call
centers located in Ontario and New Brunswick are surveyed. Each example
underlines that ''central tension produced by the tertiary sector'' (p. 163):
Francophone monolinguals add a distinctive value to a company's services,
besides ensuring members of their language community a privileged control over
the sector. At the same time, monolingualism creates privileged positions for
bilinguals in today's globalized economy. The case of New Brunswick call centers
also raise a number of important issues, such as the evaluation of language
skills, their (under-)payment and the setting of a linguistic standard that
ensures the client's satisfaction.

The last chapter goes back to 2005, the year of the 250th anniversary of ''le
Grand Dérangement'', the mass deportation of Acadians by the British during the
French and Indian Wars. Heller went to observe a commemorative festival held in
Caraquet, New Brunswick. There she found a community that distances itself from
the militancy of the previous generation: ''we don't know where we are going, but
we're on our way!'' a banner claimed on parade day (p. 177). That statement seems
to capture well the mood of today's Acadiens. This new generation is prepared to
resist Anglophone domination, but it is also keen to master English; meanwhile,
it retains an affection for those ''authenticating practices that ended up being
marginalized when Francophone nationalism became institutionalized'' (p. 189).


Monica Heller's ''Paths to Post-Nationalism'' has many qualities, and
hierarchizing them is not easy. I was quite impressed by the amount of
first-hand information shared by its author; most of this information was
gathered through extensive fieldwork, which undoubtedly ''involved a lot of
scraping ice off windshields'' (p. 114). Decades of meticulous work are contained
in this book. Another quality of the book is its balance: each chapter begins
with an insightful summary of the broader context that introduces the case
study, and proceeds with a report of Heller's fieldwork, which in turn strikes a
perfect balance between ethnographic observation, discourse analysis and even
photographs in the last chapters. This combination, and the findings it yields,
makes a very strong case for a Heller's ''critical ethnographic sociolinguistics''.

The book will be of particular interest to those seeking a different account of
French-Canadians' struggles for recognition since the 1960s; it also offers
clues as to how this struggle might evolve. ''Paths to Post-Nationalism'' also
makes a must-read for graduate students about to engage in fieldwork. The book
is not only rich in case studies: its author manages to create a connection to
her readers; her first case study in a Montreal brewery (Ch. 4) is particularly
interesting in this regard. Beginners will learn a great deal from Heller's
remarks on how one gets perceived in the field (p. 82).

I found that the book's only weakness was the absence of a distinct concluding
chapter. Such a chapter could have summarized and discussed the author's
findings and methodology in a more satisfying way for the reader. I believe that
Heller is absolutely right to ''rethink sociolinguistic ethnography in ways more
oriented to process and practice than to community and identity'' (2007, p. 342)
but it seems somewhat paradoxical to account for these processes and practices
by isolating one single element, the ''globalized new economy'', as an independent
variable. This is not to say of course that it is irrelevant, quite the
contrary, but there are certainly other aspects of globalization that determine
what the author observed. To her defense, globalization is a recent,
multi-faceted event that we are only beginning to grapple with. And certainly,
sociolinguists will use ''Paths to Post-Nationalism'' as a starting point to
further this inquiry into the impact of globalization on language use.


Heller, Monica (ed.). 2007. Bilingualism: a Social Approach. Basingstoke:
Palgrave MacMillan.

Ghislain Potriquet is an Associate Professor of American studies at the University of Strasbourg. His research interests revolve around the issues of language diversity and the law. He is affiliated to two research centers: 'EA 2325 - Recherches sur le monde anglophone' and the 'Groupe d'Étude sur le Plurilinguisme Européen' (GEPE).

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Pages: 240
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