Responding in part to a post of mine over at the Valve, Gzombie argues that technological development--at least in seventeenth- and eighteenth century England--is a major factor in canon formation. As a nineteenth-century Americanist, I can't speak directly to the specifics of his claims, but if accurate they suggest a series of corrollary claims about the entire idea of what does and doesn't belong in "the canon." First, the claims:
- works of literature exist as objects.
- objects qua objects must be examined from objects-as-literature. One must ask "Who created/distributed/owned/read this object?"
- "non-literary topics impinge on these questions: Government licensing. Censorship laws. Copyright laws. Printing technology. Ink technology. Paper technology. Metal working technology (the casting of type, the creation of engravings and etchings). Labor laws & traditions (for those who worked in the printshop). Advertising. Distribution networks. Literacy rates. Taxes. Commercial competition."
- as technology improves, the audience changes: "Improbable as it might sound, the developing skills of metal workers--the ones who created type--could have had a direct bearing on the development of literature. If the only people who can afford to buy your books are the wealthy elite, then the content of your books will likely take their tastes into account. However, if you can make books more affordable, suddenly you start to pay attention to the tastes of those with less money to spend on any particular book."
- as copyright law changes, so too do the books published: "We can look at publishing records and say, "Aha! Text A was reprinted again and again and again. That must be because people liked it so much." Perhaps. But perhaps it survived because printers could make cheap copies and turn a quick profit. Had newer works been less bound up in copyright--i.e. free to be produced in cheap copies--they might have knocked those old perennials right out of the market."
Given that this is the case, the old Arnoldian argument that literature is "the best that has been known and thought" needs an edit: "the best that available technology and the whims of English copyright law has encouraged and disseminated." As an aesthetic, that kind of materialist argument has some problems, foremost among them it being a materialist explanation of what people like to consider an aesthetic process. But you know what? His explanation is foundational. As in, any aesthetic argument that seeks to formulate a theory of canon formation on purely aesthetic grounds must first contend with this materialist argument.
The issue has never been about "the best" but about "the best that remained." The process Gzombie describes checks the number of works that are in the literary marketplace at any given historical moment. That doesn't mean I can't argue, for example, that of the work that did survive, what is currently considered canonical is "the best of that has been thought and known." An aesthetic criteria can still be appended to this materialist argument; however, the aesthetic argument can no longer assume that the works that have survived were predestined to do so. (Nor can it assume that the preterite deserved their damnation.)
Now I know what you're thinking: Jesus Tap Dancin' Christ, A. Cephalous, why not inform me of the existence of gravity?
What's amazing is how often literary scholars forget that gravity exists, how often they allow Homer or Shakespeare or Joyce absolute flotation rights. Not that there's not good reason to believe that some works survived on merit alone. (One day I will write a compendium of my favorite puns from the Wake. It'll be called "Messageposthumia," at least until the Babylonians banish this poor Jew from its precincts.)
I would write more, but this is tennis, you see, and I'm waiting for Gzombie's volley. The ball's not struck the ground as yet, and despite our ostensible concord I still fear his power baseline play. So I stop for now, frozen like Uncle Toby, er, Uncle Toby awaiting foot-fall, praying his angles preclude passing shots.