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Review: “Highway of the Atom”

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A Critical Review of “Highway of the Atom” by Dr. Peter C. van Wyck

The book “Highway of the Atom” (Peter van Wyck 2010) produces its own self-referential critique and so it is, deceivingly, easy to review.  The work is a series of personal narratives of “melancholic prose” that “constitutes a particular repower of events” mixed in with theoretical and historical discourse. Dr. van Wyck as “witness” begins by explaining the structural looseness of the book by turning it into an expanded journal-document of sorts from his field work and a critical analysis of the ideas he confronts on his journey (p3-4).

He attempts an investigation of the now dissolved federal crown corporation and uranium producing company, Eldorado Nuclear Limited that supplied the Manhattan Project and ipso-facto was a part of the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan.  At the same time he propounds to investigate the very archival and scholarly field work he is conducting in a self-reflexive set of interpersonal checks and balances whereby he overlaps poetic prose with intellectual inquiry.  I find this self-justifying method of holistic interdisciplinary inquiry limited, but, he does pre-justify the gaps with; “Of course, all of the standard disclaimers apply” (p7).

Toward the start of the work, van Wyck refers to himself indirectly as the ‘fact finder’ or the ‘interested researcher’, in the third person, but from the outset we get the literary undertone of a first person that continues throughout the whole book.  His goal seems to be, to illicit a kind of embodied empathetic response from the reader, as he takes us on his physical journey of the ‘places’ he geos, and the resulting ideological inquiry ‘spaces’ they evoke.  Together we travel down the so called “Highway of the Atom”. 

His frustration with accessing information and revealing the hidden narrative of Canada’s involvement in “the bomb” (p13) seems to be muted by the overwhelming complexification of interconnected and undigested philosophical underpinnings that problematizes the document to the level of philosophical doctrine but limit the poetic expressions that are seemingly designed to convey a cultural history that Canadians have not documented – and therefore cannot feel.  At times, the moral undertones are taken over by a complex poetry of implications and scholastic challenges that make it hard to follow in that there are several central themes – all not fully explored. One example is the personal-poetic and another methodological-academic – presented simultaneously and interwoven.  The book could be read with various intent and satisfy, to some degree, either ‘objective scrutiny’ or ‘moral tale’.  However, I find that attempting to understand all of these things at once leaves me somewhat academically bewildered. 

His survey of past projects documenting Port Radium (location of the uranium mine) is simultaneously accompanied by a critical analysis of the deficit in historical documentation and prefaced by notes on the philosophy of forgotten histories – Benjamin (p12). In most category-breaks of thought, such as from ‘History’ to ‘Writing’ and ‘Writing’ to ‘Map’, there is a similar, very brief preface of related communications philosophies.  The research is usually centered on a grouping of selected academics and the ideas they cover as specific to the given category – such as Lucy Lippard’s semiotic study as relates to ‘Writing’ (p17).

It might have been more effective to succinctly separate the personal journey from the theory in describing the various challenges he faced both linguistically and conceptually.  In a way however, his interweaving style was successful in that it literally embodied the frustrations of the journey of uncovering the truth about a dark chapter in Canadian history.   In another way it was made somewhat inaccessible academically, and unclear, in that many of the ideas started were not fully developed.

Van Wyck used several primary sources of research including the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Eldorado Nuclear Limited records (p9).  “At the outset this work was to rely on the trickle of documents that emerged from the Eldorado papers in Ottawa.” (p18) His own “Personal Notes” (p207-234) were used in conjunction with philosophical references literally from A (Aristotle on the Art of Rhetoric) to Z (ZWycky on Wisdom & Metaphor) (p235-p256). 

Perhaps his most interesting source of research was his extensively funded field work including: “trips to Great Bear Lake, Port Radium and Deline, Hay River, Norman Wells, Inuvik, and Fort Smith; to Yellowknife, Rae, and Edmonton”.  He also interestingly ended up “trying to figure out Harold Innis’ field practice by retracting his steps with his journals in hand, up the Mackenzie River from the delta to Great Slave Lake.” (p20)  I would expect that with a trip as big as this, one could write a series of some fifty volumes and I suppose that the mere bewilderment of such a journey made the task too large to manage in a volume just over a couple of hundred pages long. 

A reoccurring theme can be noticed throughout van Wyck’s field work between himself and Harold Innis.  Not much was actually said about Innis although it is obvious that van Wyck and Innis shared the same challenges of manifesting a journey and their subsequent notebooks into compelling contemplated theory. Van Wyck sources Innis on several occasions to attempt comparisons between their respective challenges and tried to make solid connections between their fieldworks. Innis was first introduced as a kind of attaché to van Wyck’s research on page 36 and then mentioned on numerous occasions throughout the book (p36, p37, p44, p45, p81, p82, p132, p153, p164, p202, p206, p207, p208, p209, p211, p212, p213) including several parts in an extensive section – a sort of epilogue of ‘Notes’ on pages 223, 225 and 254.

Van Wyck begins rather optimistically with; “To me, an interested reader in Harold Innis, the development of radium and then uranium as Canadian staples made this project an ideal opportunity to site the cultural theoretic project within a Canadian historical context” (p37).  This problematic connection between loosely connected concepts of the Canadian historical context and Innis’ abundantly sighted ‘staples’ theories left me wanting more explanation that was not forthcoming.  Van Wyck begins writing about his imaginary relationship with Innis as though Innis and van Wyck had the same problems or intentions, or that their work is intrinsically linked.  He later debunks his own insinuations with “Harold Innis refers to the Mackenzie River as a ‘highway’ in his Mackenzie River journals of 1924, but he never was much interested in uranium or in highways for that matter” (p44) -sourcing Innis’  Mackenzie River trip field notes  (p223).

Van Wyck continues to tag along with Innis in this confusing partnership briefly touching on him on page 45 where he mentions: a boat Innis boarded, a brief inference to conventional mythological tropes of Innis northern writings (p81), and a contextualization of Irene Spry within the Innis time frame by being “closely associated with Harold Innis at the University of Toronto” (p132).  He also incidentally states, later on, that “Spry spent a summer pretending to be Harold Innis” (p153).  It is not until page 164 that van Wyck attempts a slightly more developed association of theoretical inquiry connecting Innis’ work with his social communications analysis. “One cannot speak about a general social effect of communications – this would be mythology – nor of social effect that may derive from the emphasis of particular media (the abiding contribution of Innis).” (p164)

Taking leave of Innis, van Wyck covers a plethora of challenges and analysis to the problem of traversing the “Highway of the Atom” towards uncovering the true narrative of the Canadian-Manhattan Project connection.  The two scholars are symbolically reunited when Innis reappears on page 202 where van Wyck refers to “a recent trip to the north” where his “traveling companion was also a ghost of sorts: Harold A. Innis.”(p202)

He covers Innis’ trip down the Mackenzie and the problems with Innis’ field work including pretending to love cannoning (something Innis rarely did).  He also mentions glaring omissions by Innis in his field work, further complicating Innis because of his “overlapping details that have more in common with the recursive quality of excited recollection than within the linear geography of the river” (p204).

To his credit, reflexive moments are forthcoming at some point that start on page 209 where van Wyck parts from Innis although only to return to the undefined partnership by speaking on behalf of Innis in a couple of instances – “For Innis … For Innis, the Staples exist within the field of development” (p209).  This is not only true, but obvious, because Innis was somewhat relatively clear about his objective of analyzing the expansion of the north.  Van Wyck continues on with an undefined somewhat loose connection to staples whereby for him, “the penumbra of the staple is enlarged to encompass the future as well, creating strange loops in which the fur-trade route bleeds in to the Manhattan project.” (p209).  This comparison works on the operational or logistics level of manufacturing and production of a commodity taken from the land in the north that perhaps Innis was driven towards.  However, the insinuated undertone of being able to compare the very public (trade-commodification) staple of fur or lumber to the very private and secret dealings of uranium production doesn’t quite fit on many levels. Eventually, van Wyck literally shares his dissociative frustration with Innis in section 4.16 where he writes, “I wanted to find in a kind of dialogue with my absent other, Innis, through his notes” (p211).

It should be noted that van Wyck rightfully propounds analogous intention with Innis in that they both excogitate an understanding of “place and relation” (p211). He also comparatively concludes, quite rightly, that “both space and events are produced and are generative in relation to concrete social practices.” (p211)  The difference here is that Innis might not have always explicitly stated these connections in his field notes whereas van Wyck had the foreknowledge and the goal of addressing the political, social and communicative theoretical challenges of a similar journey, and so, was forced to deal with these issues throughout his notes.     

There is also a moment where van Wyck seems to expose his frustrated inability to squeeze more philosophical juice out of Innis’s field notes.  “Innis’ field notes, though, attest mainly to his practice of gleaning – he makes lists, he notes exchanges, prices, and trapping techniques, he takes measurements, makes sketches, counts boats and barges – all towards a production of a descriptive thickness.” (p211)  Unfortunately for van Wyck, in Innis’ writings there was no mention of the various ‘cult’, ‘magic’, ‘vision’, ‘myth’, ‘phantom’ and ‘story’ telling themes one readily finds in the various creatively named titles of his “Highway of the Atom”.

Van Wyck eventually, rightly and finally identifies a provable relationship with Innis when he breaks down the relationship to a more obvious and genuine connection, abandoning the need for ideological similitude (although this ultimately seems to fuel his frustration).  He writes, “perhaps what interests me the most, naively I suppose, was that we both found ourselves on the river, at the same time of year, taking notes … trying to make sense of things. Yet what I found of Innis was a theorist who refused to theories.”(p212)  Van Wyck’s frustration with a lack of connection between his all-encompassing holistic theoretical approach and Innis’ more cartographic – fact finding militaristic ordering of the world seems to be the direct result of his attempts to make both journeys methodologically linked to similar social and communications problems.  However, the concept of method or even the topics of race and gender – that are all issues prevalent to both times – might be a more common academic focal concern of our generation – or even just differences between the two men.  In essence, it is a problem of trying to make connections between two scholars of two times with two goal using two methods with two entirely different intentions. 

Eventually on page 213 it turns into an ugly divorce of the previously assumed marriage to Innis when van Wyck openly professes, “Innis is not good company.  It is too easy to come to a dispute with him, to see his selectivity as an all too conventional optic of an indifferent euro-ethnography … he seems not to like Indians, women or Jews”.  Van Wyck condemns Innis to, forever more, be a racists sexist anti-Semite – although it is hardly rigorously proven – a symptom of a juicy divorce. 

I was left with the irresistible conclusion that van Wyck and Innis were only connected by the fact that they both did some field work in the north of Canada and that they later analyzed and theorized what they found. 

My observations also have me believing that van Wyck and Innis differed in their core intent.  Innis was probably more interested in merging his field work with industrial-academic efforts and in some ways his ‘pre-dirt work’ objective was to collect and analyze data that was useful to the industrialization or population of the north.  Van Wyck on the other hand seems interested in producing a subliminal message of critical analysis towards the challenge of documenting, and proving, the negative effects of Canadian crown-military-industrial activity in the north; while simultaneously broadly critiquing the philosophical problems of codification, interpretation and or communications in general. 

Both scholars have different limitations in their pursuits that are intertwined with their intentions.  Van Wyck is limited by the access to information and frustrations with the intention of appropriately representing his documentation – whereas Innis seems more oblivious to his glaring bias’ and focused on tactically organizing his notes (a thing likely harder to do before the portable computer and video recorder – never mind the internet).

 I can imagine a debate about the Canadian North between Innis and van Wyck, happening today, and the banter that would insure, because of their seemingly diametrically opposed academic and personal cores.  I would like to believe, as van Wyck attempted at the beginning of his journey, that they could eventually be friends in this fiction of mine.  Alas – such is not the definition of fiction. 

For me the “Highway of the Atom” stops on page 206 where the ‘Notes’ section begins and my interpretive qualifications end. Innis is mentioned several times in the ‘Notes’ section but I advise any persons interested in the issues discussed in this critical review to have a look at them for themselves as I am unable to surmise an appropriate summary.

The “Highway of the Atom” is a fractal presentation of interrelated topics presented in tandem that do not automatically evoke any underlining cohesive themes – for me.  In my humble novice opinion, streams of thought must be connected to or deconstructed around a central thing; even if that ‘thing’ is just a metaphor or an assumption I am loosely aware of.  That is why I feel that the central thesis’ of “Highway of the Atom” are somewhat undefined.  Is it about uranium, communications, developing the north, the flaws in documentation or method or academics, the moral woes of Canadian mining, a bomb that threatens the end of the world, or all of these things and more and thereby none of these things at once?

On the flip side, the book is a good excesses for the mind in that it stretches or perceptive muscles to reach into both implicit and explicit knowledge of the documentation of our history and subsequent formation of our identity.  Van Wyck walks us though his challenges of acquiring the information he needed to perform his investigation (p18), going so far as to be clear with his frustrations asking; “what kind of writing  … does that Highway of the Atom demand?” (p19).

My overall impression of the work is that it is a summary of a huge list of potential topics that are only briefly excogitated; otherwise the project would have been overwhelmingly large. Dr. van Wyck’s “Highway of the Atom” could have just as well been entitled ‘my journey down a highway’ or even just ‘the journey of inquiry’ – but again no one title would have sufficed given the ambitious combined goal of critiquing a dark part of our Canadian history while simultaneously critiquing critique. 

His book could be compared to flipping through the sports channels on TV.  You get bits of each game and so it is momentarily exciting and engaging – but you can miss key moments and sometimes don’t get a full picture of what is happening on each channel.  After a while, you are left with is a broken unfulfilled narrative, the very thing that van Wyck seems to be critiquing about a missing dark chapter of Canadian history connecting us to the bomb.

Morgan Rauscher (Friday, March 01, 2013)