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Culture to go – Northern Living

Throughout the summer of 2020, Érudit and the Société de développement des périodiques culturels québécois (SODEP) put forward articles taken from Quebec cultural journals in order to enhance the summer readings of Quebecers, as well as Internet users around the world. The Bagages culturels / Culture to go campaign, which reached a large audience, highlighted several themes across various disciplines. Given the interest of readers in this campaign, we have chosen to repeat the initiative for the winter season. The first theme for this session is called Northern Living.

Without further ado, here is the presentation text of this theme, written by Daniel Chartier, professor at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and director of the International Laboratory for Research on Images of the North, Winter and the Arctic. The text and the list of articles are available on the SODEP website (only in French language). They will also be shared on the various social medias of the SODEP and Érudit in the coming weeks.

Experiencing Nordicity

How can we envision the cold world, the “North,” the Arctic, even winter, and all of the phenomena and signs they comprise? Though the realities of winter, the cold, and the North are far from novel, they have until recently been overlooked as notions to be studied and examined. Several reasons can explain this knowledge gap, which was first observed in the 1960s by Quebec geographer and linguist Louis-Edmond Hamelin, who advocated for the establishment of a new critical field around terms he had then coined himself. These notions have since become dynamic research programmes in and of themselves: “nordicity” (nordicité; the state of the North) and “winterity” (hivernité; the state of winter). Both concepts call for an interdisciplinary approach, combining the study of their physical, social, psychological, economical, cultural, literary, linguistic, and aesthetic aspects, as well as their relationship to urban planning. They allow for a definition of the North and winter, not in regard to their opposites, but rather according to their own components and inner workings. This can lead to a fruitful reversal, in order to locate the positive potential of the cold world, rather than viewing it only in terms of “adaptation” to models created for milder climates.

In the 1960s, when Hamelin coined the term “nordicity” in his Quebec City lab, he was seeking to fill the gap in the French (as well as English) vocabulary used to designate his own climate and immediate environment. He had no idea how popular this notion would become, and that it would come to embody an essential aspect of the identity of Quebeckers, Canadians, as well as other northerners. Throughout his career, Hamelin has forged hundreds of other terms to describe the physical, social, and cultural realities of the “North.” To him, without the adequate terminology, we remain “illiterate” about the world that surrounds us. Lacking the words to depict our world reflects our lack of awareness, but also a certain discomfort, even a form of rejection, of what we perceive.

Nowadays, owing to these advances, we can draw new comparisons between various northern cultures and societies (in Québec, in Canada, in Scandinavia, in Russia, and in Finland, for instance) that go beyond the characterization of their climate: the notion of the “imagined North” opens a fresh perspective allowing us to grasp all of the signs, phenomena, behaviours, representations, and practices related to the reality of living in a space that undergoes strong seasonal changes in luminosity and alternates between mild and cold weather. How can we view cold, snow, darkness, and ice as benefits? How can we envision the inward (psychological as well as physical) withdrawal brought about by winter, and experience it in a positive way? How can we understand the North for what it is? These are the fascinating questions raised by nordicity, as well as the intellectual challenges they present to researchers as they seek out paths for a better and happier life in the cold world.

Daniel Chartier
Professor, Université du Québec à Montréal
Director, International Laboratory for Research on Images of the North, Winter and the Arctic

Translation by Luba Markovskaia