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Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney's Cafe and Other Non-globalized Places, People and Ideas

by Brian Fawcett
ISBN: 1554200059


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A Review of: Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney∆s CafT and Other Non-Globalized Places, People, and Ideas
by Eric Miller

In the English-speaking world, possibly the first sanguine assessment of mall culture appeared in Joseph Addison's Spectator No. 69 of 1711. This brief essay extols the peaceable cosmopolitanism of the Royal Exchange, a prototypical shopping arcade:

"I have often been pleased to hear disputes adjusted between an inhabitant of Japan and an alderman of London, or to see the subject of the Great Mogul entering into a league with one of the Czar of Muscovy. I am infinitely delighted in mixing with these several ministers of commerce Sometimes I am jostled among a body of Armenians: sometimes I am lost in a crowd of Jews, and sometimes make one in a group of Dutchmen. I am a Dane, Swede or Frenchman at different times, or rather fancy myself like the old philosopher, who upon being asked what countryman he was, replied that he was a citizen of the world."

Addison felt confident that private interest and public good coincided, and that this assured coincidence would unite the globe. Brian Fawcett's collection of essays, Local Matters, upholds the standard of cosmopolitanism, but discovers the defects that time has revealed in Addison's dream. Entrepreneurial zeal was supposed to advance tolerance as well as "an infinite variety of solid and substantial entertainments." Fawcett's characteristic essay "Plenitude and Globalized Culture" addresses our current state, what Fawcett deems "Absolute Entrepreneurial Proliferation"-the apparent outcome of Addison's celebration of free trade.
Drawing on the work of the Bosnian Dzevad Karahasan, Fawcett speculates that "radical economic and technological openness" now come "coupled with cultural and semantic closure." Commerce encourages us to join "subcultures" in which "we will hunker down and go to war against all the other ones, all without ever challenging the superimposition of the marketplace, which will cheerfully sell us the weapons and medical supplies and praise our entrepreneurial lan." Thus, Fawcett vigorously attacks the cant that accumulates around the concept of "diversity", a concept that Addison already almost adumbrated in 1711. Fawcett's hatred of cant accompanies a liberating honesty, an honesty that in his case may be called personal, because it derives so plainly from his own experiences, whether as a forester ("Proofreading Some War Novels", "Aesthetics and Environmentalism"), a teacher of literacy in the prison system, or a poet quite consciously manqu ("The Tides Are Caused by the Moon's Gravity, Not by Ours," "The Anthology"). Each experience escapes mere personality or biography to become objectified as a kind of limb whereby Fawcett may test the claims that human beings advance about themselves, their motives and the world. From a syntactic and lexical point of view, these limbs may move a touch stiffly, but their explorations, like those of a Mars probe, reward our interest because of the terrain they grapple with equal brio and awkwardness.
Fawcett's repudiation of cant does not usually unbalance his judgements. "Marshall McLuhan Twenty Years Later" assesses the theorist's strengths and weaknesses with energy, but without rancour. He praises McLuhan's curiosity yet, in keeping with an inveterate suspicion of easy "diversity," Fawcett attacks McLuhan's understanding of tribalism: "Official multiculturalism," Fawcett writes, even in an affluent city such as Vancouver, leads "to a nonviolent version of gang and ethnic warfare, with the sub-tribal enclaves squabbling with dysfunctional governments and one another for privileges they would deny to everyone else." As this passage demonstrates, the exercise of intelligence is, for Fawcett, partly a willingness always to perceive and always to acknowledge strife. Power tries to deny what resists it; and indifference likes to believe in a state of peace that licenses sloth. Stan Persky's tribute to Fawcett, which introduces Local Matters, recalls a short story of Fawcett's, focused on the contest between a physically inferior but doggedly verbal boy and his much stronger opponent. Persky does not explicitly make the connection, yet Fawcett, like his hero, emerges in his essays as a man who will keep talking, whatever the perceived magnitude of his antagonist and whatever the failings, under stress, of the rhetoric that he deploys.
Fawcett's ideas are exciting, and advance themselves quite nakedly for the reader's concurrence, adjustment or dismissal. The warmest essays, such as "Specificity", name beloved neighbourhood people-a tailor, a mechanic-with what would amount to naivet, if the conditions for such acquaintance were not now so grievously compromised by what Fawcett calls "Virus", the tentacular spread of commercial franchises. Fawcett writes movingly in "Versus Virus" of his friendship with Graziano Marchese, the proprietor of Dooney's Caf, and Fawcett's essays benefit from an imagined coffeehouse atmosphere, in which some passages of conversation impress with greater intensity than others, and a general commotion of ambience suspends searching attention to shapeliness and detail. A sort of obstructed directness characterizes his prose: "But since thought is what matters-its temporary and cosmic relevance, its depth of penetration, its originality-to write by my method is accidentally an exemplary political and social procedure that defends me against all the not-thinking moments and temporary commodifications that are now offered as value and meaning." Such writing has a blocky, splintery quality, and the reader must adapt to this tone as to that of a particular companion at a table on a terrace. Fawcett compels readerly goodwill by admissions of the difficulty he has sometimes experienced with composition. The essay "The Purpose of Paranoia" confesses to a fit of poor, even demented writing, distorted by "incoherence," "bad grammar and spelling" and "broken confidence and uncertainty." Typically, although he provides quotidian reasons for his "meltdown," he also relates his authorial spasms to contexts well beyond the personal; "the purpose of paranoia" is to detect the malign effects of unbridled "entrepreneurial ideology": "Someone, or something, prefers us with our heads in our navels Paranoia isn't pleasant to live with, but I'm beginning to think of it as the most reliable navigational instrument I have."
Fawcett knows his trees from his time in the forests, and Local Matters at times impresses the reader as resembling a lumberyard. No one would deny the attractiveness of a lumberyard, though its wares, for all the order with which they are arranged, remain unfinished: to be unfinished is their rationale. Like Fawcett's prose, a lumberyard embodies a paradox, because the aromatic force of its stock remains strong despite its complete abstraction from arboreal existence. Sometimes in Fawcett's writing, abstraction prevails to the detriment of an essay's argument; "Exile" imagines a film to be made about the twentieth century, a film focusing on human displacement. Yet Fawcett, having made the conceit of this film central to his essay, provides no visual properties to make it real to the reader, beyond an allusion to the story of Jonah and the whale. "The Tides Are Caused by the Moon's Gravity, Not by Ours" succeeds far better; this meditation on "the future of poetry" begins with a hilarious recounting of the slapstick circumstances from which the youthful Fawcett reflexively extracted verse of Virgilian melancholy. Fawcett's own disavowal of poetry came in part from his inability to integrate broad comedy with seriousness, although Canada has produced figures who have been popularly perceived as uniting the two imperatives (Al Purdy comes to mind). Fawcett's ambivalence about the "poetry Biz" has its justification. To insist on the primacy of lyric, however, as Fawcett does in an excursus on the origins of current poetic practice, which repeatedly makes the dumfounding gesture of discovering beauty in the midst of ugliness, arose from the trauma of the First World War. Hence Fawcett's insistence on the primacy of lyric, of the lyric moment-the salvational epiphany. But to argue in this way is to forestall any recognition of the diversity of genres open to a poet conscious of literary history. "Lyric" has become almost synonymous with poetry itself, a sad reduction of immemorial possibility.
In "Why Writers Write: A Reconsideration", Fawcett defends curiosity as a prophylactic against self-absorption: "If I can't use the research at least I'll know something more than I did before I started, and what I'll know won't be my feelings about myself." The grace of Local Matters is its demonstration that curiosity and feelings-even intimate ones-are not irreconcilable, but rather mutually reinforcing; they bind the neighbourly and the cosmopolitan together. Leaving aside the problem of Fawcett's style, Joseph Addison would no doubt be admonished and pleased in equal measure.
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