Nordic | Imaginary

International Laboratory for the Comparative Multidisciplinary Study of Representations of the North

Pour la version originale en français de ce texte, consultez Qu'est-ce que le Nord?

The Laboratory

The Laboratoire international d'étude multidisciplinaire comparée des représentations du Nord [International Laboratory for the Comparative Multidisciplinary Study of Representations of the North] at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) is a centre for research, documentation and expertise on the Nordic and Winter imaginary in literature, film, the visual arts and popular culture. It is intended primarily to encourage comparison between the different Nordic cultures as exemplified by Québec, the Inuit community, Scandinavia (Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden) and Finland.

Since it was set up in 2003, the Laboratory has brought together some 15 researchers from about 10 universities (in Québec, Sweden, Denmark, France, Israel, Canada, Germany, England, Iceland and Spain) who have used the infrastructure developed at UQAM to study the Nordic imaginary. Their efforts have been devoted to a comparison of Québec culture (literature, film and the visual arts) with that of other Nordic peoples (Inuit, Scandinavian and Finnish) and to an analysis of works from both the popular and high cultures of all countries involved in representation of the North. The Laboratory was founded by Daniel Chartier and is directed by him.

The Nordic Imaginary—Issues

In Western history, the North constitutes a mythological space shaped by centuries of imaginary figures, from Greek writings and Biblical texts to Nordic sagas and accounts by the great explorers. In the 20th century, the North has been portrayed as an elusive land of conquest that recedes ever further the closer one comes to it. These representations of the North are not mere descriptions of a geographic place; rather they constitute a fascinating multicultural discourse uniquely nourished by various strata of ancient cultures (ancient Greece, the Vikings), taken up by European cultures (particularly France and Germany), revised by Nordic cultures (Scandinavia, Canada, Québec and Finland) and, today, brought into question by Aboriginal cultures. Considered as discourse and not description, the North unfolds in its historical depth and, when analyzed in literary works, in its narrative function. Whether depicted in utopian discourse on the conquest for territory, the denunciation of representability, political self-affirmation or the inclusion of the fantastic, the North appears in narrative texts as a variable that changes meaning with the period in history and is based on universal discourse fashioned by centuries of representations without any real contact with the place evoked.

These analyses highlight not only the desire to understand the North as a mythological space and a discursive system created and shaped by cultures from the South, but also the need to include the discourse of Aboriginal and Inuit peoples, who are only beginning to speak out and determine their own cultural space (first Inuit non-documentary film: Atanarjuat, 2001; first Inuit novel from Nunavik: Sanaaq, 2002). The culture shock created by the self-affirmation of peoples who, until now, have been defined solely as characters of the imaginary, must be considered in two respects in the study of representations of the North: first, in the emergence of a new discursive space that calls for a reexamination of all earlier representations; and second, in discourse that enriches the plurality of viewpoints about the imaginary. This dynamic must not exclude representations of the North generated by non-Aboriginal peoples (from Québec, Canada, Scandinavia and Finland, for example) or those taken up by popular culture (the Alaska gold rush, the sinking of the Titanic, Santa Claus, Arctic adventure films, and so on). While the mix of aspects from popular and high culture adds to the complexity of the issue, it does not prevent the crystallization of elements, figures and constructs (the idea of physical and spiritual challenge, the purity of white and cold, inaccessibility, etc.) that run through various works and that lay the foundations on which scientific, fictional and documentary discourse on the North is based.

Thus, the North is, first and foremost, understood as cultural discourse applied by convention to a particular territory whose mythical and discursive substance extends far beyond geographical description and whose boundaries vary with the period in history. The idea of Québec as northern paves the way for an untapped basis of comparison (particularly with Scandinavian and Finnish cultures as well as Aboriginal representations), which enables us to better grasp the peculiarities of founding figures and trends ("coureurs des bois" or trappers, regionalism, the theme of winter, relations with the Aboriginals), and to define Québec not only as French-speaking and North American but also as a contemporary northern culture in both its popular manifestations (films, legends) and its high-culture dimension (poetry, the visual arts).

The Laboratoire international d'étude multidisciplinaire comparée des représentations du Nord has led to the creation of an open, multidisciplinary research network, based on a decentralized yet collective work plan and supported by advanced information technologies. The research objectives of the Laboratory are three-fold: (a) first, to study Québec literature and culture from a northern perspective by examining the aesthetic use of the North as a component and the underlying issues, while bearing in mind a more general and dialectic objective: determining the parameters of a definition of northern culture; (b) second, to carry out a comparative study of the different literary and cultural forms produced by Québec, the Inuit community, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Greenland, English Canada and Finland; and (c) third, to determine how representations of the North operate and are received both diachronically and synchronically: how the North, from the myth of Thule to popular representations in the visual arts and film today, constitutes an aesthetic and discursive system that maintains constant tension between the representation of the real and the creation of an imaginary world.

Teaching and Research

Students may enroll in a research group in the Laboratory. Research groups receive credit in the M.A. and Ph.D. programs of the Département d'études littéraires at the Université du Québec à Montréal. A B.A. level seminar "Littératures nordiques"is offered periodically. Depending on the semester, individual and group work may involve establishing the corpus and analyzing literature and film; it may take the form of a student symposium. About 10 students from different universities work at the Laboratory as paid research assistants. Graduate students are welcome to participate in the Laboratory's research activities. All activities are part of a universal framework in which students contribute as researchers. Lecturers are invited by the Laboratory to come and speak. Postdoctoral researchers also participate in the Laboratory's activities: Iris Gruber did a research internship on Québec-Austria comparative study; Katri Suhonen did the same on Finnish-Québec literature and Maurizio Gatti did research internship in Aboriginal literatures. See our list of both undergoing and finished thesis.

Symposiums Organized


The works published by the Laboratory are distributed by Presses de l'Université du Québec (www.puq.ca , phone: +1 (418) 831-7474 or 1 800 859-7474, fax: +1 (418) 831-4021). For bookstores: Distribution de livres Univers (Québec), AFPU-Diffusion (France), Servidis SA (Suisse), Patrimoine sprl (Belgique and Luxembourg).


The Laboratory has one of the largest specialized libraries on the Nordic imaginary and winter and the issues related to its study. Its documentary collection includes 13,676 literary works, essays, films and articles.

The Laboratory has developed an innovative series of data banks (containing works, illustrations and quotations). As of November 26th, 2015, these banks contained some 71,988 records, including:

  • an annotated bibliography of more than 12,000 literary works with a Nordic component;

  • an annotated bibliography of more than 13,000 studies on the Nordic imaginary and Nordic cultural issues;

  • an annotated filmography of more than 1,000 films;

  • a bank of more than 13,000 citations related to the Nordic imaginary, classified according to elements, figures, constructs and themes;

  • a bank of more than 30,000 illustrations of a Nordic nature, described and annotated.

Since the banks are interconnected, they can be queried by means of multiple criteria and key words; these criteria enable users to link thousands of representations of the North derived from literature, the visual arts, popular culture and film.

To perform its work, the Laboratory has premises equipped with 6 computers, one server and a variety of video, photographic, digitization and viewing equipment.

All researchers are welcome to use the Laboratory. Access to the collections and data banks is based on the principle of collective and reciprocal contribution.

Operating Principle

The researchers working with the Laboratory are required to cooperate with it by supplying the library and data banks with any results of their work in connection with the aims of the Laboratory. A research group open to M.A. and Ph.D. students is also designed to further the Laboratory's research and analysis efforts. French is the main language under which the activities of the Laboratory are conducted.

The Laboratory is funded by Recherche-Québec, the Canadian Innovation Fund, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Fonds québécois de recherche sur la société et la culture, Foreign Affairs Canada and the Université du Québec à Montréal.

The present document was translated by Elaine Kennedy.