Notes on 14th Text for Reading Field: Bouchard

Canadian History, Week 2

Gerard Bouchard. “Une Nation, Deux Cultures,” and “Culture instituante, culture instituée: une repère pour l’étude du changement culturel.” In La Construction d’une culture: le Québec et l’Amerique française. Edited by Gerard Bouchard with Yvan Lamonde. 3-47, 251-305. Sainte-Foy: Laval UniversityPress, 1993.

Gerard Bouchard, as editor and contributor to this volume, adopts a semi-scientific approach to Québécoise history that owes much to anthropological theory, and a measure to geographical theory as well. He seeks to examine a particular cluster of features that, he avers, have often been presented as defining Québécoise culture: an obsession with difference with respect to neighbouring regions; a conservative tradition; an open discomfort with diversity among Québécoise; a ‘stranger complex’ that exhibits highly ambivalent attitudes towards North American culture; a paradoxical fidelity to, and ignorance about (or, Bouchard allows, perhaps contempt of) British, Roman, and particularly French ideas and models emanating from Europe; and, finally, assertions of identity imbued in a vigorous nationalism. The thesis Bouchard forwards is that these defining features — replete with internal contradictions, yet apparently derived from one original source — were historically established in a manner peculiar to Quebec because of the relations between the socio-cultural elite and those he designates as “le peuple.”

Central to his thesis, following Fernand Ouellet, and, he asserts, in keeping with “the majority of historians,” is Bouchard’s contention that rather than effecting ‘decapitation,’ the conquest actually allowed a local elite to develop, and to establish an erudite culture. According to Bouchard, the erudite culture, though promulgated with energy and enthusiasm, was in fact in tension with, and at times constrained by, a popular or ‘rough’ culture nurtured by “le peuple.” This dynamic, in his view, is particularly evident in the period after the failure of the Rebellion.

Bouchard cautions that the thesis, which underlies the entire edited collection, is more properly a working hypothesis, because some of the studies included in the text were still in process at the time of publication. He presents the general objective of organizing the studies as:

a) to show at what point certain representations of Québécoise society, of its past, of its members’ collective ‘vocation,’ and of their relation with contributory North Americanisms were deformed, contradicted and diffused — by ‘the great socio-cultural elite,’ among whom he includes an emerging bourgeoisie, the majority of the members of the clergy, liberal professions and intellectual groups such as journalists, high functionaries, teachers and artists;

b) to trace the origin and history of these distortions;

c) to bring to light the repercussions for cultural evolution of Quebec.

This is an ambitious goal and while the works presented do support the thesis, Bouchard allows that many of the pronouncements made are covered too briefly and stand in need of much greater illustrative proofs if they are to be regarded as empirically verifiable.[1]

Potential post-modernists objections to adapting scientific modes of analysis to bolster historiographical inquiry aside, Bouchard’s object of study appears well suited for the approach adopted.[2] First, he appears eminently aware of academic discourse on the constructed nature of knowledge, essentialism and reductionism, and is wary of confusing ‘history’ as a practice with the ‘past’ as a temporal site, as well as of straying too far from maintaining an air of ‘reasonable doubt’ as he outlines his position. Second, he notes that a great deal of demographic data and socio-cultural description — pertaining to a number of time and place specific settlements, and spanning a three hundred year period in one geographical area (now contained within the boundaries of Quebec), as well as data on European communities of origin — are available for the purpose of comparison and contrast. Thus the emergence of new features, or the elimination of old, can be traced from original, collective, cultural forms.

Although Bouchard’s purported interest is in evaluating the role of the elite in shaping Québécoise culture, in his own work, at least as it is presented in this text, it is the cultural behaviour of “le peuple” that is studied in detail. He favours a precise and highly structured methodology that incorporates close study of historical data compiled on particular locations (for example the areas of Saguenay and Charlevoix); study of data is supplemented with interviews of inhabitants of long tenure regarding rites, rituals, and traditions surrounding celebrated events such as birth, marriage, death; and he relies on comparative analysis. Conclusions about the power of the elite to dictate, prescribe or control cultural expression are therefore arrived at by way of negative evidence: implicitly their power is shown to have been circumscribed; explicitly the evidence points to the power of “le peuple” to maintain, create and enunciate their own cultural norms. Over the course of the various articles that make up chapters in the book, Bouchard reads this evidential relation in, and to, culture as a fundamentally important ‘underlying dynamic’: a historical process in Québécois society, which he characterizes as a ‘cleavage’ between erudite culture and popular culture.[3]

Although cliometrics and the quest for empirical truths have been subjected to much criticism within social history circles (particularly from an American post-modernist perspective), Bouchard adopts a post-modernist maxim – that terms and theory be carefully defined and elaborated – in order to justify his overtly empirical approach. In this he is consistent with European, notably French, historiographical theory and practice, though he is of the opinion that often in historiographical circles that borrow extensively from geographical or anthropological theory there has been a tendency to allege theoretical cohesion where the form of discussion is in reality too ambiguous to confirm it.

An additional consequence of Bouchard’s attention to theoretical detail is that his work is positively stuffed with variables and “axes of interrogation”; delineations of theoretical and actual limits to the ‘beds and layers’ and ‘spaces’ of cultural change (or, alternately, continuity) that these axes encounter; and possibilities for interaction. His care in distinguishing among these separate elements leads necessarily to the resultant text being highly complex. In no small part due to his writing style, but as well to his critical insight with respect to other authors, the text is also exciting. Nevertheless at times the qualifying statements are so dense that one might wish for a schematic map of the numerous themes, subtexts, and subjective nuances that intersect the various lines of objective enquiry as ‘divergent and convergent forces of conjuncture.’

To his credit, for the most part Bouchard is able to separate theoretical complexity from historiographical descriptions (which he sets out in a straightforward and clear manner), and balance the one against the other.


[1] Gerard Bouchard, “Une Nation, Deux Cultures,” in La Construction d’une culture: le Québec et l’Amerique française, ed. Gerard Bouchard with Yvan Lamonde (Sainte-Foy: Laval University Press, 1993) 4, observes, “On voudra donc pardonner certains énoncés trop rapides et se contenter pour le moment de repères empiriques trés ponctuels qui veulent davantage illustrer que prouver.”

[2] Gerard Bouchard, commentaire, “Culture instituante, culture instituée: une repère pour l’étude du changement culturel,” in La Construction d’une culture, 252.

[3] Ibid., 251, 253.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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