In the Current: A Study of the Modern Writer's Identity in the Works of B.W. Powe

(It was early 1996 and I was filling my time by taking a class at a local adult education center. In February of that year, I churned out this essay on Canadian writer B.W. Powe, whose ideas about technology and the 'post-literate society' made a big impression on me.)
A brave new world is here. Traditional presumptions concerning the most basic principles of human existence are called into question. Everything is changing.

People react to societal transformation in many ways. Some individuals adhere to radically relativistic cultural perspectives, which assume no absolutes. Others comport themselves within a more conservative framework, finding respite in the security of tradition, history and family.

But most people swing between these two extremes, skeptical of the politics and policies of a world caught in transition.

In the past, existential security and metaphysical consolation was found in religions and myths.

Now even the words of the most sacred texts have been scrutinized and reinterpreted as a human measure of reality, with no authentic claims to objective truth and certainly no basis in divine actuality.

Words are understood to be ambiguous repositories of meaning, and the individual voice of the writer has been confused within a maelstrom of philosophical speculations, symbols, and media-generated imagery.

Without question, the printed word is undergoing radical revision and change.

As a consequence, it's necessary to re-address what relevance, if any, the writer has in a society "where literate sensibility no longer occupies a central position in culture, society and politics...when the ability to comprehend the word decays" (Powe, SO: 15).

B.W. Powe is one of the writers who are addressing this issue. Powe is part of a revitalized Canadian literary scene which also includes authors Douglas Copeland and William Gibson.

Where Copeland's niche is a marriage of sociology and fiction, and Gibson has pioneered a vein of popular sci-fi known as cyberpunk, Powe tends toward an older, but no less revolutionary school of thought, which includes - among others - Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan.

Powe's interest in McLuhan is specific. In the 1960s, McLuhan popularized a seminal vein of thinking that dealt with the extent to which "the self-conscious 'I' was created by the print medium" (Powe. SO: 15). 

McLuhan referred to this phenomenological observation as the 'Gutenburg Galaxy', a nod to the inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenburg.

The understanding that McLuhan seeks to define centers around the proposition that "the portability of the book...added much to the cult of individualism" (McLuhan. SO: 178).

McLuhan's speculations set him in a tradition of Canadian thinkers fascinated by communication signals and reception, not only in the sense of media, mechanized or popular culture, but the interactions between the individual and public - or collective - consciousness.

It's an interest shared by Powe, who seeks authentic expression of the individual's voice as the writer's means of communication and connection with that collective consciousness.

Powe brings this perspective to bear in two books - The Solitary Outlaw (1987), a collection of essays on a cadre of Canadian intellectuals, and Outage: A Journey into Electric City (1995), which recounts the events of a man coming to terms with both his personal life and his life in a modern, post-literate society.

The first book is the work of a student and scholar of the human condition; the second book is the work of a mature intellect, whose voice has been refined by discipline, ingenuity and imagination.


One of the most profound aspects of Powe's work is his use of  language, and the ease with which he conveys complex ideas that would normally be inaccessible to the layperson.

In The Solitary Outlaw, he confines a great deal of his personal speculation to the margins, tending instead to quote and interrogate the subjects of his essays.

By application of this method, it becomes clear to the reader that Powe is attempting to break-down - to deconstruct - his subjects in order to establish a common thread of experience, a thematic continuity within their lives and art.
"Mcluhan, Lewis, Trudeau, Gould, Canetti...are private men who went outside society...they assumed what Canetti calls an acoustic mask: a play of "I's", a drama of words. a forum of questions and perceptions...Each tried to understand the role of rational and humane action in an irrational, self-destructive world; each saw communication between individuals as a necessity..." (Powe. SO: 14)
Powe lays out his agenda clearly, and his command of language allows for a susinquent explanation of what could have easily become a convoluted thesis.


By comparison, Outage eludes simple definition. In this novel, Powe expresses a sympathetic understanding of how reality can be obscured and our minds deluded by the written rule of language. 

Words are fallible and susceptible to endless reinterpretation. Old words can take on new meanings when placed in different contexts. Language has tribal significance; even specialized occupations have lexicons of their own.

Powe is sensitive to the spectrum of meaning that words can have, a disposition that contributes greatly to Outage's textual gravitas. Early in the story, the narrator - Bruce - recounts the events of Black Monday, the 1987 stock market crash. 

Bruce is alarmed at "how our paranoia was [sic] being spurred by words that had lost their conventional contexts. Words were taken from the language of nuclear warfare - words like meltdown, fallout and radiation" (Powe. OA: 16).

Bruce contends that the 1987 event was the first true global outage, a point when the linked money markets in New York, Tokyo, London and Toronto all experienced a shared crisis, a sort of information feedback loop within an open system that intensified every time a share dropped.

In a world of artificial light and media-generated perceptions, the importance of this event cannot be understated. It becomes clear to Bruce that no system operates independently; everything affects everything else. 

The smallest anomaly in revolving input/output signals can trigger a crisis of biblical proportions, depending on the sensitivity of the information being transferred. Every event in volatile datafields can shrink time and present the human figure writ large.

In such cases, can anything be considered trivial?

But Outage has another meaning, too. In fact, both titles suggest a series of private symbols and knowledge that cannot necessarily be understood outside the context of the novels.

For example, by separating the word 'outage' into its syllables, it takes on another meaning. For Powe, the "out age" is defined as bringing the age "out into the open, its obsessions and's a time when each person can become an antennae for the race" (Powe. OA: 4).

In using this definition, Powe evokes words of the iconoclastic and controversial 20th century poet Ezra Pound, who once declared, "artists are the antennae of the race". It's a phrase McLuhan adopted a generation later to suit his own philosophy, and Powe's thoughtful take suggests greater meaning still.

The possibility that we - as a species - are at a critical point in our development has, no doubt, occurred to Powe. He wonders if our technologies are "an exercise in tyrannical control or the beginning of an authentic human radiance" (Powe. OA: 4).

By comparison, 'the solitary outlaw' is a term taken from The Enemy, a novel by Wyndam Lewis, who is a subject of Powe's critical essays.

For Powe, 'the solitary outlaw' defines "the literate person in the post-literate society. Or if you are conscious and intelligent, you are outside the mainstream" (Powe. SO:27).

Both titles suggest multiple layers of meaning. While words themselves may have no significance outside intellectual reality, their symbolic value retains importance within that reality, linking these books to a philosophical tradition as old as Plato's Republic.


How something is said is as important as what is said. As a writer, Powe's medium of expression is the novel and essay. He works within these formats in different ways, and with varying success.

Outage is told chronologically in the first person voice of Bruce, but it isn't a 'traditional' novel.

Those books might be described as moving through struggle towards a climax of some kind, and then resolve.

As a text, Outage has more in common with modern novels, which habitually disregard the voice of an omniscient narrator to focus on storytelling.

In such conventions, there is no necessary climax or resolve. Characters move through a sequence of events which may or may not have any apparent correlation to one another.

Bruce's intellectual speculations are charged with meaning when he has them, but he is also aware of a fluidity of form, and of the dissonance and impermanence of his fleeting ponderances.

Outage offers no finality, no "self-conscious wind-ups" (Powe. OA: 17). The result for the reader is a sort of comfort, despite the uncertain conclusion.

The Solitary Outlaw is a series of essays about prominent Canadian intellectuals. These individuals are used as "magnifying glasses" (Nietzche. EH: 57) by Powe to explore the substance of his thesis.

Powe was once quoted in an interview saying that modern writers should "never hunt anything small".

He called the writer "a public investigator", and implored his peers to evaluate the systems of their time and place, whether they be political, economic, spiritual or electronic.

He encouraged writers to "be dangerous" (Powe. [unidentified publication]: 166). His vision of the writer in the post-literate society is of the critic who does not resign themselves to any particular agenda, but maintains a dynamic balance between their public and private life.

The writer is active within their community, advocating reason over nihilism, and challenging the outmoded ways people think and communicate.

In a way, Powe sounds the warning that we are behind enemy lines.

The literate person in the post-literate age is a thief of fire, a solitary outlaw committed to individuality and independence; dangerous because they are honest, subversive because people believe them.

"The Solitary Outlaw is you - the reader of your time, the critic of your surroundings" (Powe. SO: 28).