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Rooting (for) Canadian Culture
by Paul Keen

If you love Roots, you will love this book. In fact, it's a book filled with photos of people who love Roots. Arnold Schwarzenegger loves Roots-there's a picture of him smiling in his Roots shirt. Ditto Pamela Anderson and Dan Akroyd and Mark Messier and Robbie Robertson and Céline Dion and k.d. lang and Sting and Sarah McLachlan and John Candy and Spike Lee and Jean Chrétien and Kim Campbell and Atom Egoyan and Leonard Bernstein and Bobby Hull and Doug Gilmour and Prince Charles and Prince William and... Just look at them all wearing their Roots gear! The entire Canadian Olympic team loves Roots. See them marching in Nagano in their Roots outfits. You might have mistakenly assumed that they were proudly wearing their Canadian Olympic uniforms onto which the manufacturer had cleverly but slightly cheekily smuggled its name. But if you were confused (and by the end of the Nagano Olympics it was getting difficult not to be confused), Geoff Pevere's Team Spirit: A Field Guide to Roots Culture is here to sort things out. Those athletes were smiling because they were wearing Roots uniforms that were also decorated with something about Canada. They're part of Roots culture.

There was a time when coffee-table books stuck to a fairly predictable range of trusty subjects. A Day in the Life of Russia (a zillion photographers set loose on the same day from Archangel to Vladivostok) or Scottish Castles or Paintings of the Group of Seven. But the rules have changed. Team Spirit is a coffee-table book with attitude. Roots founders and co-owners Don Green and Michael Budman could never have dared to write such an ode to themselves, but fortunately for these "two Detroit reared hippies who beached in Toronto with an image of Canada so romantic it would make Nelson Eddy blush", Geoff Pevere was not quite so reticent. He has served up a tribute that would make normal people blush-but not, perhaps, Green and Budman, who are clearly experts in the gentle art of hype. As these photos suggest, they have known all along that it works far better to let other people promote you.

If all of this sounds a bit tedious, then you get the point of much of the book. Roots is a cool company, and you can tell that by the number of cool people who wear Roots clothing. And (pardon the circularity) one of the ways that you can tell that these people are cool is that they are smiling and wearing their Roots gear. By the end of the book, The Hat begins to look like a medical affliction-a strange growth on the heads of legions of celebrities. And having inserted itself inside this logical circle, Team Spirit is a cool book because it is filled with all of these people wearing their Roots gear.

Team Spirit is actually two books in one. If the photos tell one story, the written text says something slightly different. It traces three entwined histories: the story of two friends who met in their Detroit high school when they discovered that they had both been to the same camp in Algonquin Park; the evolution of Roots into a major corporation; and a more general study of the changing times, from hippie counterculture to the ceaseless commodification of that rebelliousness as the hallmark of the yuppies of the Eighties and Nineties. Pevere's point is that Roots' success is only understandable if we recognize how tightly related those three histories are. If Green and Budman preferred to think of Canada as a big Algonquin Park, they succeeded in business because Canadians were willing to invest in the same fantasy. An early generation of feminists may have insisted that the personal is political, but the gurus of pop culture know that when it comes to fantasy, the personal is just good business.

Pevere succeeds best when he focusses on the Roots phenomenon in terms of this fantasy, which he describes as "the combined cultures of summer camps, sports teams, fraternities and endless holidays". But ultimately, this is not really a book that wants to understand anything if it might unsettle its celebratory tone. When, in the high affirmative note that marks his final chapter, Pevere speaks of "the relative simplicity of the operation, and how that modesty in business practice reflects what Roots promotes in lifestyle", I can't help wondering how to square that "modesty in business" with the aggressive marketing strategies that have made Roots famous. Forget the Olympic uniform. Roots provided the official jackets for the 1998 APEC first ministers conference-again, with the corporate name front and centre.

By sheer coincidence, while writing this review, I noticed the latest Roots sweatshirt hanging in a bookstore window with-you guessed it-the Team Spirit book cover (complete with Geoff Pevere's name) emblazoned on the front. One product (the book) about another product (Roots clothes) becomes part of that product (the latest Roots top) in just the sort of style that the book says is characteristic of the company, and it's yours for free if you buy three hundred dollars worth of someone else's products. When the appropriative dynamics are this breathtaking, it is rude to ask too many hard questions. This book isn't about a company, after all, it's about a culture, and better yet, about a fantasy as culture.

If, as Benedict Anderson famously put it, nations are imagined communities, then the psychic fibres of those collective imaginations are an unruly blend of public and private stories. Canada, perhaps more than most countries, has always been characterized by an identity that relies heavily on corporate names. From the Hudson's Bay Company to the CPR, we have identified ourselves as a community partly by identifying with our larger corporations. The extent to which they can be said to belong to anyone but their investors is beside the point; we have convinced ourselves that, like health care and ice hockey, they are somehow part of who we are. So it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to see Roots updating this sleight of hand with a promotional zeal that befits the Nineties.

The ultimate point of "Roots culture", Pevere seems to suggest, is that it doesn't matter whether those are Canadian Olympic uniforms with a Roots logo or Roots uniforms with the word Canada on them because they are ultimately the same thing. Roots is Us and We are Roots and the two somehow have a lot to do with Algonquin Park. Seeing our best athletes up there on the medal podium and Ross Rebagliati on Roots ads just makes it official. The more subtle point of this book (and of Roots' marketing strategy generally) is that only someone who is deeply uncool could feel cranky about the idea that a private company could trade so advantageously on a national identity. "Roots' co-owners may play the maple leaf card a little too often and aggressively, but such an accusation reveals as much about the peculiar, unforgiving Canadian pathology as it does about anything concerning Roots."

But I have to admit, despite all the great photos, I do wonder about these things-not because I envy Roots or Geoff Pevere their considerable commercial success, but because I wonder how it is possible to repair the fabric of a national discourse (to use Bill Clinton's memorable phrase) if that discourse is reduced to corporate fashion, the unseemly contradictions of our down-sizing age washed clean in a river of consumerism and celebrity smiles. The ability to engage with these sorts of issues begins with a commitment to achieving some kind of critical distance from the culture we're studying, even if it's our own. But critical distance is not part of the seamless world of pop culture, and it is not really part of this book. Instead, the book's final message is that critical distance is for those who, to put it politely, don't know enough to shop at Roots. It feels too much like being left out. 

Paul Keen teaches English and Cultural Studies at Simon Fraser University.


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