Of Culture and Condos – Northrop Frye on condo mentality/garrison mentality

Interesting article from The Walrus magazine on Northrop Frye’s look at the condominium form and its effects on our attitudes, particularly in the context of Canadian history and our “garrison mentality.” I’d be interested in people’s reactions to this. It struck me as insightful. The video below is from The Walrus‘s youtube channel.

“He addressed the effects of that searching distance again in the concluding essay he wrote for Carl F. Klinck’s anthology Literary History of Canada (1965). There, he used the phrase “garrison mentality” to characterize early Canadian literature: “communities that provide all that their members have in the way of distinctively human values, and that are compelled to feel a great respect for the law and order that holds them together, yet confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting — such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality.” Paralyzed by the sublimity of nature and vaguely defined hostilities, settlers huddled together in isolated communities carved from the wilderness. “A garrison,” Frye explained, “is a closely knit and beleaguered society, and its moral and social values are unquestionable.”

The conclusion was hugely influential, and has been hailed as a “cultural icon” and “one of the classics of our criticism.” Following its publication, other writers explored its larger implications, most notably Frye’s student Margaret Atwood, who published Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature in 1972. Some, of course, rejected the phrase and the ideas behind it. But whether or not you subscribed, it was virtually impossible to discuss Canadian literature in the latter half of the twentieth century without engaging the garrison mentality on some level…

“As I understood it,” Frye continued, “a garrison brings social activity into an intense if constricted focus, but its military and other priorities tend to obliterate the creative impulse.” Conditions changed throughout the nineteenth century, yet the garrison mentality remained “psychologically in the rural and small-town phase of Canadian life, with its heavy pressures of moral and conventional anxieties.” For the majority of late twentieth-century Canadians, “one of the most highly urbanized people in the world,” the garrison mentality, “which was social but not creative,” had been replaced by “the condominium mentality, which is neither social nor creative, and which forces the cultural energies of the country into forming a kind of counter-environment.”

While critics have contested the concept of a garrison mentality, Frye’s notion of a condominium mentality has drawn surprisingly little attention. But whenever I approach Fort York from the west and see CityPlace in the east, it’s clear that the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they inform each other and suggest that Frye anticipated the type of twenty-first-century lifestyle that I, and thousands of other Canadians, now lead.

…. Critics have long maintained that [condos] are mechanisms of exclusion, gentrification, and middle-class affectation. Large- and mid-scale developments often demolish low- and moderate-cost rental housing and displace commercial and retail tenants, creating functionally gated communities in their place. Researchers have pointed out that many buyers view their purchase as a stepping stone to freehold home ownership, thus complicating the assumption that owners feel invested in their communities. And anecdotal evidence from developers and real estate brokers suggests that foreign investors — particularly those from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East — make up a large percentage of condo owners in Canada, essentially functioning as absentee landlords with financial but not cultural stakes in a community’s well-being…
…When I walk around CityPlace, what strikes me, beyond its scale, are the similarities to the historic garrison next door. First and foremost, it is largely self-contained and introverted; the majority of the site is bounded by Bathurst Street to the west, a rail corridor to the north, and the Gardiner Expressway to the south. Spadina Avenue, a pedestrian gauntlet, separates a smaller portion of the development to the east. The thoroughfares and train tracks function as modern fortifications and moats, offering residents protection from the hostilities of Toronto. The central green space, accentuated by an oversized canoe designed by Douglas Coupland, recalls a military parade ground, with neighbourhood hounds marshalled about by their dog walker sergeants. In the event of a siege, denizens are well equipped: they have a canteen (Sobeys), vaults (Royal Bank, TD Bank, CIBC), and numerous watering holes. In the event of inclement weather or bombardment, they can move from building to building without actually having to go outside. Even structures that house the development’s common amenities (the pool, the gym, the movie theatre) display a dash of military flair: chain mail curtains provide the right combination of privacy and intimidation. Surely, this is the type of development political scientist and housing critic Evan McKenzie had in mind in 1994 when he anticipated “a return to the ancient concept of city as fortress, in which society’s haves huddle to defend their lives and possessions against the have-nots outside the gates.”

Read the whole essay in The Walrus (for non-Canadian readers, The Walrus is Canada’s answer to The New Yorker or Atlantic).

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