gall and gumption

Friday, September 05, 2008

Well, If the Canon Told You to Jump off a Cliff Would You Jump Off?

Here's something nice. This chap, Morgan Mels, has just discovered that he is at liberty to read whatever he pleases. He seems unsettled by the news.

I'm a bit unsettled myself, though less by the news than by the discovery that anybody is still talking about the canon, and by the news that a canon was made and enforced for years until -- when exactly? Last week? Last June? Last year? Where was I when all this was happening? Why didn't anybody tell me? I'm going to have to hold some of you accountable for this, Bob, Pam.

For the non-English majors among my readers, a word about the canon. When I heard this debate start up I was in grad school. It seems there had been a canon before but now it was too white, too male, too Eurocentric, etc., and needed to be modified to accommodate all these new voices. (Over on the right side of the auditorium writhing could be observed.) Somehow the project (mostly imaginary, at least so I thought) expanded: the canon would be one of many things -- just what exactly, though, depended on who had the podium: a curriculum for English majors (to be used everywhere? a list of suggestions? what sorts of critical standards and methods would underly it? would literary theory be part of it? would the canon be a requirement? implemented how? more debate more debate more debate). While everybody seemed to agree that it was necessary to have this thing defined and settled, what subsequently happened was that the ensuing controversy became a sort of battlefield in the culture wars, that is, it took on the feature of every American political sideshow: every single little consituency, political and "theoretical" was demanding "representation" within the curriculum, on one hand, and on the other hand, the lizard-brained self-appointed defenders (who asked them? Tolstoy? D.H. Lawrence?) of Western tradition and "standards" hissed and harrumphed at proof that the world was going to hell in a handbasket.

There really wasn't much to choose among the various parties to this debate. At least not for me. I just mostly wished that they would all get drowned together. But now I learn from Mels what I missed, while I was reading what I liked and thinking, writing, and teaching what I pleased about it.

The one assumption that they all shared--and it was the key assumption, everything else was decoration--was that the literature major's act of reading would need to be in some way "blessed" by the fruits of this ongoing ecumenical council.

And there was the other assumption, recklessly optimistic to the point of being delusional, that these various constituences all arguing over the canon could in some coherent way be reconciled to one another, and that the product of this reconciliation would be worth reading by anyone seriously interested in literature.

(If you want to see a painful example of what that could end up looking like I recommend Jay Parini's biography of William Faulkner. Parini's narrative of Faulkner's life is sensitive and genial. But every time he ventures into discussion of the work, his professional conscience requires that he play the role of the English department chairman in a David Lodge novel, presiding over one of those academic department meetings from hell where people talk at cross purposes and the chair tries tirelessly and with utter foolish futility to pretend that these seething resentments and long-cherished reserves of contempt (Al Stephens called them "La Brea Tar Pits of grudges") will work themselves out if everybody has a turn with the talking stick. Points are conceded not on the merits but sort of on the birthday-party-favor principle: no-one should go home empty-handed.)

First, according to Mels, the canon enabled people to distinguish themselves from "the barbarians" hahahaha yes I'm sure he was speaking ironically, aren't you? Otherwise, what a confession that would be!
Second, it gives you "standards by which to measure yourself and others." Standards of what?
Third, "You learn from the canon in order to understand what the rules are and how to apply them." To what end, other than distinguishing oneself from the lower orders sorry I meant barbarians, is not apparent.

Then there was the downside:
First, "it becomes unquestionable," and questioning it leads to an infinite regress, because if the standard can itself be judged there must be a more primary standard, ad infinitum.
Second, it was "an authority that, for all its usefulness, often seemed arbitrary and authoritative merely for authority's sake." And when you observed this, what did you do? Just shrug your shoulders?
Third, "There was power — too much power maybe — lurking inside the canon, with its terrible weapon of exclusion."

Once you stop complaining and start getting back to work, it becomes clear that the barbarianization of all things affords some interesting opportunities. There are benefits to having a canon, of course. For one, you've got standards by which to measure yourself and others. But one of the most troubling things about a canon is the way it becomes unquestionable. You're never able to ask the canon "Why?" It is the standard by which one asks why. This is meant to prevent infinite regress. If the standard can itself be judged, then there must be a more primary standard, and so on, ad infinitum. The canon stops all of that cold. It answers those disturbing questions before they can even be asked. You learn from the canon in order to understand what the rules are and then you go out and apply them. What you cannot do is turn back and start asking questions about the canon itself. A canon doesn't work that way.

So, with the collapse of the canon we're a little bit lost, drifting amidst a sea of cultural troubles. But we're also freer. The entire cultural landscape gets freshened up. We get to look at things anew and decide if we really do like them, and why. We step out from under the thumb of an authority that, for all its usefulness, often seemed arbitrary and authoritative merely for authority's sake. There was power — too much power maybe — lurking inside the canon, with its terrible weapon of exclusion. That power has faded away. We're alone again, confronting the world like children, barbarian children with only a few tattered and mutually contradictory maps to assist us.

The advantages of the canon are purely social. Subscribing to it will distinguish you from the riffraff, er, pardon me, barbarians by telling you what opinions to have. And thus you may avoid embarrassing (or possibly fatal) social situations which may arise from thought-gaffes, such as liking Hazlitt when it is not fashionable to like Hazlitt, or being too centrifugally belletristic (I was actually accused of this once -- it's among my cloudy trophies), or not having rushed out to acquire the latest analytical tool.

You may notice a certain amount of ambiguity (or, if you prefer, muddle) around the question of whether the canon is a collection of literary texts, analogous to the Biblical canons, or whether it's a collection, a collage, collective, corporate Leviathan- or jellyfish-like English professor composed of the assembled opinions all the thousands of English professors, jolted into life and animation by the fire of social ambition. A creature that doesn't actually exist in the flesh (thank God) but simply lives in the imaginations of those people who expect to be told what to think about what they read, apparently so they can repeat it approvingly at one another. I assume that Mels is not asking the stack of books "Why," and I've never had a book forbid me to think or read anything, so He must be asking this imaginary canon-person-collective entity.

Tell you what, just to simplify our lives, let's refer to the list of texts as "the Canon" and let's refer to that other thing, the one that judges and excludes and has standards, as "the Entity." I'd like to give it a proper name, but the only one that suggests itself is Jehovah, and that's taken. (Remember in California when people used to have Entities? I wonder if they still do. They were expensive, I remember.) This one is a rather testy Entity: its answer to the question "Why" is basically, "Because I said so, that's why!"

At the risk of disagreeing with Mels, I don't think this answer is an infinite regress. Still, it ought to prompt one or more of the following reflections, just as an infinite regress should: 1) Perhaps I am asking the wrong question; 2) Perhaps I am asking the wrong person; 3) Perhaps the Entity is an idiot; 4) Perhaps there is no question, i.e., the problem does not really exist. Also, unfortunately, there seems to be difficulty in understanding the difference between an infinite regress (dead end) and actual infinity.

The downsides of the canon are all social too. They consist of the Entity's arbitrariness and its "terrible power of exclusion."

Terrible! To be excluded from the Herd of Independent Minds.

... when critics influenced by Marxist terminology talk of alienation, they mean something directly contrary to Marx's philosophical and revolutionoary conception. They mean not the tragic sepearation of the individual from himself, but the failure of certain sensitive spirits (themselves) to participate emotionally and intellectually in the fictions and conventions of mass culture. And this removal from popular hallucination and inertia they conceive as a form of pathos.

Nothing could be more vulgar, in the literal meaning of the term, than whining about separation from the mass. That being oneself and not others should be deplored as a condition of misery is the most unambiguous sign of the triumph in the individual of mass culture over spiritual independence. It is a renunciation of everything that has been gained during the past centuries through the liberation of mankind from the authoritarian community.

Rosenberg published that essay in 1948, and here's Mels, 60 years later, having followed his profession to heights of bathetic grandiosity that Harold Rosenberg, merely sane, could not have dreamed up with a running start:

We're alone again, confronting the world like children, barbarian children with only a few tattered and mutually contradictory maps to assist us.


Seriously, what can possibly be made of that? What kind of an explanation is that for anything? Why this resort to the rusty metaphoric tools of late romanticism at its most vague and blathery? "Barbarian children." Who? Where did they say they were trying to get to? Does he feel like this all the time, or what?

Notice again this difficulty in perceiving the difference between a glimpse of infinity and an intellectual dead end. He thinks he's looking at the empty spaces of a godless universe but he's got his nose pressed up against a blank wall at the end of an alley. He can thank his Entity for putting him there.

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At 1:52 AM, Blogger Juke said...

I'm not hunnerd percent but I think Morgan Meis is not a cultural native. Probably I should go research that...
Well now I'm exhausted, and all I found out about him is he co-founded the Flux Factory and went to Princeton. I already knew he wrote at 3QD.
But so anyway that "learning how to pass" thing.
Like Naipaul it reminds me of in a way, the high-function mentality with permanent cultural unsettledness, an outsider who proves by analysis and adoption of "the rules" his fitness, then transcends the rules with a cold critical eye. It gives Naipaul's prose an attractive but exotic solidity, and that acute perspective. But there's an adolescent fervor, even when its calmed way down with disciplined language.
An over-interest in who's in and who's outside and why.
Maybe that's it.
Like guys who talk about blues players like they were sports professionals. Fixing the boundary locations, then getting inside and crowing about it. But still pretty nervous about the whole thing.
Fun smack down, Kia.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Chad said...

If I'm remembering the few years I spent as an English major correctly, the trend is now to claim that there are multiple canons - a Greco-Roman canon, an eighteenth century canon, a women's canon, a Native American canon, etc., etc. The elitism is still in force, though.

The irony is that I became convinced early on - and I still believe - that one is more likely to learn about the society and culture and viewpoints of a time by reading its so-called "trash literature." For instance, I probably learned much more about Victorian England and its anxieties by reading collections of penny-dreadfuls than reading Charles Dickens (and had a much better time doing it, besides).

At 12:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

English professors, huh? Aren't we talking about those "my vocabulary is bigger than yours" guys, who communicate to maybe 3 other human entities (=their nemeses) so exactly?

barbarociously and abecedarioliciously,



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