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George Grant: Not His Own

Starting Out

George Grant In "The Ancestral Journey: Travels with George Grant," Dennis Duffy provides an evocative introduction to the career of Grant through the conceit of a series of journeys, both actual and symbolic. "The primal journey in George Grant's imaginative account of his ancestry was undertaken by his United Empire forebears in their exodus from triumphant revolutionary America to what are now Canada's Atlantic provinces" (90). Duffy speculates that this journey may have indelibly marked Grant's thinking with a sympathy for the British Empire, an aversion to the United States, and a deep pride in the "dominion" of Canada.

Another journey: His grandfather, George Monroe Grant traveled across Canada in 1872 and wrote about his impressions in Ocean to Ocean (1873). Ocean to Ocean is as much an imperialist manifesto as it is a travel diary. Monroe Grant believed that a railroad would bind the diverse regions of Canada into a Dominion, making it a stable and formidable outpost of the noble British Empire. George Grant would later extend the project begun by his grandfather in The Empire: Yes or No? (1945) where he argued that the British Commonwealth remained "the mainstay of Western Canadian civilization" since it represented the "ordered helping of people in backward areas to move toward fuller political consciousness and the modern use of their resources" (qtd. Duffy 92). After WW II, the spectre of Canadian subservience to Britain had been put to rest, in Grant's mind, by Canada's wartime record; the real threat now came from the empire to the south.

During the war, at a time when Grant suffered from tuberculosis, he abandoned his position on a merchant marine ship, retired to the countryside in England, and there experienced a profound "conversion" experience:

At the worst stage of the war for me in 1942, I found myself ill, and deserted from the merchant navy, and went into the English countryside to work on a farm. I went to work at five o'clock in the morning on a bicycle. I got off the bicycle to open a gate and when I got back on I had accepted God...But I have never doubted the truth of that experience since that moment...If I try to put it into words, I would say it is the recognition that I am not my own. (qtd. Duffy 96-97)

Duffy comments that this description demonstrates Grant's "conviction that life has a meaning in terms of its supervision by a higher, benign power" (97). Grant's Protestant beliefs shape his thinking profoundly, contributing to a complex admixture of despair and hope, guilt and moral exhilaration.

Another of Grant's symbolic journeys in Duffy's telling occurred when he travelled in 1960 from the Toronto airport to his new teaching position at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. (He had been teaching at Dalhousie in Halifax):

Driving in from the airport, I remember being gripped in the sheer presence of the booming, pulsating place which had arisen since 1945...And part of that experience was the knowledge that I had come home to something that could never be my home" (qtd. Duffy 98).

This vision would haunt Grant's writings for the next 25 years, beginning with Lament for a Nation in 1965. For Grant, Canadian society had been seduced by the technological will-to-power which characterized the American agenda. A new continental imperative had arisen, driven by alliances between the federal governments and big business, and founded on a faith in technology, what Postman would later call the "technopoly." The resulting technological imperative would, Grant warned, profoundly undermine Canadian cultural and moral values.

The Technological Imperative

Central to Grant's critique of the technology (and empire)--and here he is surely following the path charted by Innis--is the notion that humanity has wholeheartedly embraced the "spirit of dynamic technique" (Lament vii) as its ruling principle. He asked, "What happens to nationalist strivings when the societies in question are given over, at the very level of faith, to the realization of the technological dream. At the core of that faith is service to the process of universalisation and homogenization" (Lament ix). For Grant, this forfeit of national character not only betrayed a heritage of resistance to the disorderly spirit of American exploitation--remember the Loyalists?--it also radically compromised Canadian national morality in light of the growing involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam:

We have all the advantages of that empire, the wealth which pours in from all over the world, the technology which comes to us through the multinational corporations. Yet, because we have formal political independence, we can keep out of some of the dirty work necessary to that empire. We make money from Vietnam; but we do not have to send our sons there....We want through formal nationalism to escape the disadvantages of the American dream; yet we also want the benefits of junior membership in the empire. Unfortunately it is the dominant classes in our society who gain particularly from that membership. (Lament ix)

Grant would have rolled over in his grave during the NAFTA debates and negotiations. He believed that "the chief instruments of American empire are the corporations."

The logic Grant applied to this question resonates like a coda throughout Lament for a Nation:

Capitalism is, after all, the way of life based on the principle that the most important activity is profit-making. That activity led the wealthy in the direction of continentalism. They lost nothing essential to the principle of their lives in losing their country. It is this very fact that has made capitalism the great solvent of all tradition in the modern era. When everything is made relative to profit-making, all traditions of virtue are dissolved, including that aspect of virtue known as love of country. (Lament 47)

Grant's argument will make little sense to us if we do not entertain the question of moral value in the face of profit-making and its concomitant technological imperative. The will-to-power implied in visions of the global village (or the globalization of the economy), which we have come to take for granted, is almost impossible to challenge in public discourse: "The aspirations of progress have made Canada redundant. The universal and homogenous state is the pinnacle of political striving...The masses and philosophers have both agreed that this universal and egalitarian society is the goal of historical striving" (Lament 53).

The Mastery of Chance

This notion that critical debate of fundamental social issues is not possible in our culture is central to Grant's argument in Technology and Empire (1969). In his essay, "The University Curriculum," Grant expresses his abiding concern succinctly and cogently:

The primary purpose in Canadian society is to keep technology dynamic within the context of the continental state capitalist structure. By technology I mean "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given state of development) in every field of human activity." [Taken from J.Ellul, The Technological Society, 1965, xxxiii.] The dynamism of technology has gradually become the dominant purpose in western civilization because the most influential men in that civilization have believed for the last centuries that the mastery of chance was the chief means of improving the race....[O]ne finds agreement between corporate executive and union member, farmer and suburbanite, cautious and radical politician, university administrator and civil servant, in that they all effectively subscribe to society's faith in mastery. (113)

Nowhere is the appropriateness of this analysis more apparent than in the promotion of networked computing for commerce, education and entertainment. Nowhere is the debate more relevant than in the universities where mastery and values have the best hope of sustaining a dialogue. Grant, however, saw little hope in such a possibility: "Debates take place about the government of the university, about humane existence within it, etc., etc., but not about what it concerns a human being to know. So monolithic is the agreement of society about ends, so pervasive the ideology of liberalism which expresses that agreement, that the question about knowing cannot be raised seriously" (114). As someone who works in such an institution, I have to agree with this statement. Universities epitomize the conjunction of mastery of chance and liberalism, in which liberalism is defined in terms of human (individual) freedom "to shape the world as we want it" (114). The remainder of Grant's essay on the university curriculum applies these central concerns to the various disciplines. Random comments:

Co-Penetration of Knowing and Making

How often have we heard some version of the assertion that "Technology is neutral; it is how we use it that matters" ? In his essay "The Morals of Modern Technology" (Canadian Forum,1986, 11-17), Grant argues that the combination, or co-penetration, of intention and making in the development of new technology means that it cannot be considered neutral:

...modern civilization is distinguished from all previous civilizations because our activities of knowing and making have been brought together in a way that does not allow the once-clear distinction of them....We close down on the fact that modern technology is not simply an extension of human making through the power of a perfected science but is a new account of what it is to know and to make in which both activities are changed by their co-penetration. (11)

The classic story of this co-penetration is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the classic example in recent memory is the atomic bomb. Grant writes: "Einstein advised Roosevelt that in light of the modern discoveries of physics, atomic weapons could be built and that the Americans should organize to build them" (13).

Grant applies this reasoning to the development of the computer, challenging the statement of a scientist that "the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used." The statement divorces the making of the computer from the intentions for which it was made. It has been pointed out that one of the first uses of a computer in WWII was to calculate the tragectory of shells. Besides, Grant claims, such a claim also denies the more general context of the will-to-power that the adoption of technology implies, or the necessity for large corporate structures for the manufacture and distribution of computers.

This notion has a corollary in the co-penetration of identity and technology that is the theme of Arthur Kroker's The Possessed Individual. Here, Kroker discusses the French theorists of identity and technology--Virilio, Baudrillard, Barthes, Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault-- who dissect the ways in which the postmodern identity has been shaped, conditioned, and invaded by both the images of the media and the technologies themselves:

These are theorists of possessed individualism in whose respective writings are to be discovered the psychology, ethics, media strategies, and ontology of postmodern subjectivity; i.e, the possessed individual. Here, the dynamic language of mastery of social and non-social nature finally comes inside, and takes possession of (our) bodies and minds which welcome it as a form of freedom. (19).

The disturbing aspect of this idea is that we are being co-penetrated not only by technology, but also by the changing notions of identity promoted by the postmodern aesthetic: we have multiple character potentials; identity is a performance; we improvise character etc. Read Sherry Turkle for an example. We welcome this new theory of identity as a form of freedom from past roles and responsibilities which we may have felt to be oppressive, and in so doing we allow a new ideological technology to set up shop in our psyches.

Orgasm at Home, Napalm Abroad

As should be apparent, an appreciation of Grant's critique of the North American technological imperative has strong moral underpinnings; he is, after all, a moral philosopher, with deep Protestant, and Loyalist, roots. Dennis Duffy sums up Grant's contribution as follows:

  • that moral rather than materialistic geo-political discourse opened a way of discussing Canadian destiny;
  • that an understanding of the historical progress of the West formed the surest foundation for understanding Canada's fate;
  • that an understanding of that fate ("intimations of deprival") could lead to an affirmation of the goods that still remained. (100)

Grant's so-called pessimism about Canada's fate as a nation is moderated by his hope that a wake up call might alert Canadians while they still have something worth salvaging. Like Innis, Grant believed that an awareness of Canada's history provided an excellent vantage point from which to view the impacts of globalization and technological determinism. The activation of a moral consciousness, as impossible as it may seem when the mastery of chance rules the day, provides some hope for the evolution of a national culture. At a time in our history when Quebec seeks cultural and political autonomy, aboriginal land claims remind us of past betrayals, NAFTA puts the lie to "free trade," and the federal government shows itself incapable of keeping election promises or managing its own responsibilities (let alone the actions of its citizens), Canadians hunger for a vision which reconciles mastery of chance with an ethical role in the community of nations. Grant attempted to articulate such a view, and behind his righteous indignation lay a soul --"not his own"-- dedicated to hope.


Major Works:

About Grant: