Sound Government: a longitudinal story of a Canada you can’t touch


Published in EAR Magazine (New York) Radio column for the October 1990 special issue on Canada.

Reprinted in Canadas, New York: Semiotext(e), 1994.

The emergence of a concept of “Canada” as a nation was dependent on, and articulated through, the building of the national railway, and subsequently-at first literally in its tracks-the national broadcasting system. The Canadian hypersensitivity to acoustics as a dimension of politics is surely based on the long-standing association of the national political process with sound, which was and probably remains its privileged carrier. Radio was conceived as an auditory means for circumscribing Canada as a nation and for providing that “Canada” with a meaning that transcended (and thus, of course, legitimized) territoriality.
— Jody Berland, Towards Creatlve Anachronlsm: An Essay on Radio, the State, and Sound Govemment

Identifying a nation by prioritizing its communication technologies might seem quite civil, an improvement upon waging war to establish borders. But Canada became a flag and an anthem through an extensive negation of the USA: we can’t tell you who (or what) we are, but we know who we are not. This negative formulation of identity locks us into an endless imitative phase. Nevertheless, our territorial border was established, and the 49th Parallel’s fluidity and sheer geographical scale makes fencing appropriate only when it is invisible. Thus, we can extend Jody Berland’s comment and state unequivocally that Canada employs sound govemment. The medium of radio is the state’s vehicle for constituting territory-through an invisible agenda of Canadian content. (The license agreement between each station and the Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) consists of a “Promise of Performance,” which quantifies each station’s programming within a complex system of categories, including mandatory percentages of Canadian content.) The on Air light comes on, demarcating a national territory washed over by modulated transmissions, confirming every second that one frequency is not another because if it were you would be somebody else,…and all that is asked is that you be loyal to your frequency. Don’t touch that dial! You are bracketed, guarded by an aural artillery in maneuvers.

Words belong to those who use them, until someone else steals them back. In Canada the word is sovereignty: it’s in the air, it’s about the air, and it has been stolen. The Canadian state is said to be a constnuct in stereo: an English channel and a French channel. But Canada’s stereo model suffers from a recurring localized lesion to the left brain hemisphere, which causes a statist language disorder known as aphasia. Symptoms are numerous: an aphasic may be capable of reading a word but unable to identify its referent, or incapable of reading a word but able to point to its referent. Language loses its meaning and becomes sound (government) -an eerie, tranquil zone, the Quiet Revolution. The two “founding peoples” of this nation have learned to swear in each other’s tongues so well that neither is comfortable speaking. In radio, the disorder is known as disembodiment, voices without bodies probing your erogenous ears. Touch that dial before it touches you! There is a certain terror in intimacies received technologically: “the spirit of Montreal,” CHOM-FM, coming to you with megawatts of power.

The emergence of other nations within the officially constructed nation is based on the promotion of a distinctness among cultures-the mosaic-defining itself through opposition. In this fiction of Canada, this empty metaphor, one becomes a people only through the struggle for autonomy from the anonymous majority. Communications technology is one of the tools that cultures use to flex the rhetorics of their nationalism. Now that the old “Two Solitudes” story finds itself narrated through the barrel of a gun over various barricades around the Montreal area, we can hear it shatter, releasing fragments of other real cultures. The multiplication of solitudes into a lonely crowd brings us back to the radiophonic relationship, the voice and listener together alone. The nationalist language of radio has no A-Z, but might have some parallels elsewhere:

Traditionally, the Inuktitut language did not parcel out time nor separate it from space. We (whites) speak of time as a solid, as mass-a bit, a span, a segment As opposed to the English language, Inaktitut makes little distinction between objects and actions. The names of objects sometimes change relative to their movement-their direction and speed-and to their relationship to other objects. Inaktitut evolved among people for whom all senses had equal importance; for whom more than seeing was believing. One’s sense of space and objects is very different if it takes into account their sound and smell as well as their visible outline.
— Kevin McMahon, Arctic Twllight

The introduction of northern control of communication technology in the North, therefore, seemed to be of particular interest to radio artists exploring alternative uses of the medium. Radio’s temporal and spatial qualities-it, too, does not parcel out time nor separate it from space-those paradoxical essences we in the South find so difficult to grasp, seemed to hnd a conceptual home in the Inuit matrix of thought. Is radio’s slavery to the distribution of music and news, to formatted programming for a formatted audience, inherent to the technology? or is it misuse that makes radio a mere distributor rather than an intimate communicator? Radio in the North presented an opportunity to observe the theoretical preoccupations of radio artists who feared that their medium had become just one more voice of authority, and hoped that the form of radio could demonstrate greater pluralism and malleability.

Community radio spread like wildfire. The technology seemed to be no barrier whatsoever. People had no sense that they had to be professional broadcasters; they just grabbed the microphone. People knew the impact immediately, they knew it mached their community instantly. There was no other form of accomplishing that, except by calling a meeting. That was a good indication that it was appropriate technology the radio was completely a part of the framework of community. The definition of radio was instant and quite well developed I was amazed at that because I came from a tradition whem radio was given to me and I had no sense of it being a communication tool, but up them it just seemed to fit into the culture, where communication is important by voice.
— Florence Woolner, Chief of Aboriginal Broadcasting, Secretary of State

This sounds too good to be true. Within the context of the systematic genocidal attack on the North, by what Kevin McMahon calls “the rain of metal” (the DEW line, the James Bay hydro projects, Cruise Missile testing, pipelines, etc.), one could hardly celebrate; yet it sounded as if the Inuit may have been able to transcend not only government regulation, but the limits of radio itself: their disembodied voices were made whole in the context of their holistic culture. But this is an idealized scenario. Actually, sanctioned government experts implemented the introduction of communications technologies to the North, with their training at the ready. Primarily, it seems that Northerners could change the content of radio, but not its proscribed form.

I do not propose to participate in the carnage of the metal rain by further translating the Inuit other. We can never, however, dismiss challenges to the dominant format. Radio artists explore the nature of their medium, not to understand it but to reappropriate its potentialities, which remain constrained by category minute by minute across the country. The effects of categorical nationalism make radio a visible instrument. I believe that it is more at home in its nebulous, unseen world.

Ultimately, we cannot pretend that radio will ever replace the warmth of touch. It is inherently obtuse and one-sided. Its angle of transmission is ephemeral, deflecting and reflecting the dominant structures of our Statist constructions. Had the Northerners not been pre-formatted as Canadian nationals, they might have offered challenging insights into the relationships that stand.