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Thursday, 23 April 2009

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Bill Benzon

For a few of generations, English professors claimed that cultural knowledge was the provenance of the literary (what with perceptiveness being the core feature of literary sensibility).

It's more than that, Scott. To quote J. Hillis Miller*: "English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens, even though it was the literature of a foreign country we had defeated almost two hundred years earlier in a war of independence. That little oddness did not seem to occur to anyone." It's not simply that the canonical works are the best, but, because they are the best, they are the source, a privileged source, of ideas and values that are essential to citizens. We in the academy pass on those values by having undergraduates read the canonical works.

You go on:

So when a scholar wanted to know how things stood between America and Europe at a given time, they would not turn to any of the countless travel narratives written by Americans in Europe and Europeans in America, but to the most acutely literary accounts of the current state affairs.

Now the emphasis has shifted. You're not talking about passing values down to the next generation. You're talking about having knowledge about the world, good, bad, or indifferent. Of course, it's perfectly reasonable to study canonical texts for this purpose. But once you're clear about what you're doing, clear enough so that you can distinguish it from the business of inculcating true values into the best and the brightest, then you're likely to start wondering whether or not it makes sense to confine your inquiry to the canonical texts. Maybe all those other texts can be used for this purpose as well. Not only that, maybe you are obligated to examine those other texts because they might well tell different, and therefore complicating, stories about the relationship between Amnerica and Europe.

*http://web2.ade.org/ade/bulletin/n133/133063.htm

Ahistoricality

I have quibbles.

First, is the London illustration a "comic"? If it is, then the real literature of comics is the storyboard (I don't remember the technical term Gaiman uses when he published the narrative/frame-by-frame description of one of his issues) not the finished product, which just illustrates.

The idea of a non-problematic literal illustration also presupposes a really flat artistic world.

Second, the comic strip is clearly not an original Charles Schulz "Peanuts" strip, but a parody, probably done by stripping the original text and replacing it. It retains "Schulz" as a signature, and no other attribution: I, for one, would like to know who to blame/credit for putting "dumb fuck" in "Lucy"'s mouth. Also, the idea clearly isn't original with "Lucy": if there's a particular critical perspective you're illustrating, I'd like to know who it is. Probably your Valve readers already know, but not all of us are literati.

Finally, though I may be dense at this point in the semester, I really don't see the connection between canon and Google. An archive is not a canon.

SEK

First, is the London illustration a "comic"? If it is, then the real literature of comics is the storyboard (I don't remember the technical term Gaiman uses when he published the narrative/frame-by-frame description of one of his issues) not the finished product, which just illustrates.

It isn't . . . but it is a work in which visual representations of textual entities appear. Their function in the text is to yoke it to a representational ethos we shorthand "realism." This is a very dull way to integrate visual art into textual narrative, whereas with comics like Watchmen, &c.

The idea of a non-problematic literal illustration also presupposes a really flat artistic world.

Yes, but it's the desire to create a non-problematic illustration of a textual world that's the issue here. A book with photographs isn't inherently more realistic than one with cartoons or one without any images at all.

Second, the comic strip is clearly not an original Charles Schulz "Peanuts" strip, but a parody, probably done by stripping the original text and replacing it.

That's exactly how I made. Downloaded a "PEANUTS" font and everything.

I, for one, would like to know who to blame/credit for putting "dumb fuck" in "Lucy"'s mouth.

That would also be me. Because 1) funny and 2) totally within the possibility of her character. If Lucy's not a profane kettle about to whistle shrill, I don't know who is.

Also, the idea clearly isn't original with "Lucy": if there's a particular critical perspective you're illustrating, I'd like to know who it is.

Bill's comment fingers Hillis Miller, but truthfully, it's a hubristic conceit of long standing. Obviously, I take issue with it, but there are many, many literary scholars who believe that the literary-qua-literary provides unique access to cultural or historical truth.

I really don't see the connection between canon and Google. An archive is not a canon.

No, but for hundreds of years, the canon was considered an archive. I may've tripped too lightly over that point in the original post, but the idea is basically: literature provides unique information about the human condition (culture, history, tradition), and the purpose of the canon is to preserve that information indefinitely. It's the emboldened version of the "We can only teach so many poems/plays/novels in a semester, but which should I teach?" argument. The implication being that any work that isn't taught to (or, more accurately, at) students will never be read by students.

Ahistoricality

the canon was considered an archive

You're talking about an extelligent abstraction used by cultural (I almost typed "vultural") disciplinarians; what I'm trying to figure out is how that concept relates to the concrete archives used by researchers, which have always included non-canonical materials necessary (though nobody may be entirely sure how) to contextualize the canon.

SEK

Check out the Valve's book event on How Novels Think, in particular Holbo's post, which I'll quote:

Armstrong discusses two things: 1) the formation of ‘modern subjects’ and, by extension, a considerable swathe of material that might be lodged under the heading ‘political and social theory’; 2) British novels. My first concern is that the desire to talk about both induces speculative exaggeration: British novels cause modern subjects.

The novels that think people into modern subjectivity? Canonical. Armstrong's held in high regard (evidence to the contrary) and lowly graduate students are encouraged to follow her lead if they ever want a job. Seriously, I'm not sure how much interaction you're had with people in English departments, but if you're surprised by my argument, I'm inclined to think it's been limited to me and a few of my saner brethren. (Which is for the better, as far as I'm concerned. The more of my people you meet, the lower I'll sink in your esteem.)

Ahistoricality

Actually, Burstein's contribution seems more on point to your post and our discussion.

Most of my contact with folks in English departments is administrative -- we tend to be on the same side in the curricular wars and seem to share students with some regularity. On the whole, I find the more historically-minded literary types (like yourself) quite easy to deal with on substantive issues as well, and I try to avoid the theory-heavy sorts because I know I'll end up rolling my eyes and biting my tongue.

Which is more or less my reaction to Armstrong, at least as she comes across via Holbo, Burstein and yourself. My understanding is that The Valve is a somewhat idiosyncratic collection of literateurs, though, so you might be right about Armstrong being more representative.

As for your argument, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it is, because your discussion of Google and your own scholarship still seems at odds with your description of the canon-archive (and I can't tell if that definition is yours or belongs to a larger literary tradition that, like Armstrong, you don't really buy into).

nk

You're a bright and nice guy, SEK, but I will still hate all men college professors until I die because they got all the pretty lady professors I had a crush on. So there, I finally said it.

Luther Blissett

I submitted a version of this to The Valve, but it never showed up in the comments, so I'll try again.

I agree with you that we should not go looking for "unique access to cultural or historical truth" in literature -- or, we should not expect it only from literature. We go to literature to have an experience. We don't need Mark Twain to tell us slavery is wrong, especially after the Civil War. But *Huck Finn* succeeds at giving us an experience of a child struggling toward a conclusion about slavery. I don't know, and I certainly don't care, if that experience is historically accurate. I care about the power of the effects Twain achieves and how he achieves such powerful effects.

My own view of the canon comes from the Homer-Hemingway school of human artistry. Whenever a human performs with grace, whenever the form and function of her performance is perfectly united, we have art: great bullfight or great poem or great soup or great fashion.

However, there's also the issue of greatness of purpose and risk. Ultimately, I think a great soup is less great than a great poem, because more is at stake in the poem. And this is how I feel about comics. To weigh an artist strictly against her own genre is wrong. Radiohead is said to make great rock music, but their greatness is largely weighed against the genre of Brit Rock: they challenge the genre, so they are better. But they challenge the genre simply by incorporating elements of other genres (kraut rock, electronica, hip hop, free jazz). Compared to Can or Peter Brotzman, Radiohead are pretty tame and entirely unoriginal.

I'm not sure any comic artist has taken on anything like the risk or accomplished anything as great as Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickinson, etc.

JPool

STOP SAYING CANON!
Sorry, it all got a bit much for me there.

It's almost certainly because, like Ahist, I'm a historian, but it semms to me that your efrorts here to redefine the word canon act as a poor substitute for a set of more direct questions: What kinds of influence has a particular text had or does it continue to have? How does a particular text represent or respond to other texts or to ideas in the broader culture? What kinds of cultural capital were associated with reading/knowledge of a particular text at different points in time? And so on. It's hard for me to see how folding these already difficult questions in and out of the notion of "canon" or "canonical" does anything other than muddy the waters.

If you frame the question even more broadly, as in your "What do/did Americans think about Europe?" example, then clearly literature, whether "canonical," "non-canonical" or "carved into a barroom table," is only ever going to be part of the answer, one kind of evidence.

JPool

I probably shouldn't respond to Luther's post, because I don't know anything about poetry or literature or comics, really, but some things I do know about.

Ultimately, I think a great soup is less great than a great poem, because more is at stake in the poem.

At stake in terms of what? I assume that you mean at stake for you because you gain greater satifaction from a great poem than you do from a great soup, or because more of your sense of self is being a Reader of Poems than in being an Eater of Soups. Anything else would be non-sensical and presume some kind of absolute cultural value what is really just a matter of personal taste. Besides, have you ever tried to edit a soup? Much easier to edit a poem. So, technically, less at stake there.

Radiohead is said to make great rock music, but their greatness is largely weighed against the genre of Brit Rock: they challenge the genre, so they are better.

Someone make this claim in these terms? Who does this? People who enjoy Radiohead claim that they make great music. They would likely both acknowledge that Radiohead are British and that they make rock music (to my knowledge, "Britrock", unlike "Britpop", is not and has not been a functioning genre) that said music does indeed deviate from standard rock format by incorporating other experimental traditions. People who are fans of experimental music qua experimental music may find Radiohead weak sauce. Most people who do not fit into this last category, however, would find something like Can unlistenable.

Ahistoricality

JPool is getting a lot closer to the heart of things than I was.

Besides, have you ever tried to edit a soup?

Cooking is performance art, not a good analogy for writing. Recipes can be like dramatic scripts, but the performers and productions bring the texts to life in ways that the author may never have intended. Especially when I'm cooking. Very improvisational.

your efforts here to redefine the word canon act as a poor substitute for a set of more direct questions

That's a much clearer statement of the problem I was having (and having trouble articulating). But jargon -- and canon is clearly jargon here -- does sometimes serve a purpose. Precise definitions do sometimes break down which allows for greater understanding; I'm thinking specifically of the great 'feudalism' cycles in historiography, not to mention the onging 'modernity' debacles. Sometimes, but for a time, at least, the language is inaccessible to outsiders until new consensus definitions are actually in place and a generation of osmosis has displaced the old usages.

JPool

Precise definitions do sometimes break down which allows for greater understanding ... the language is inaccessible to outsiders until new consensus definitions are actually in place and a generation of osmosis has displaced the old usages.

Yes, I suspect that's part of what's going on here, but it can also be important to step back from these conflict over language and try to clarify the underlying ideas. In fact -- speaking of "modernity" -- part of what I was thinking of was the analysis that Fred Cooper offers in Colonialism in Question, that tries to spearate out useful discursive categories from useful analytical ones.

The "feudalism" thing is probably a really good example of the ways that jargon gets spread around unevenly. In African and Asian history we spent our time trying to figure out if this European model applied or roughly approximated at least some of the economic and political systems that operated, and while we're doing that (and trying to decide if this is a stupidly Euro-centric question to begin with) European medevalists go and revisioned the ground out from under us. On the other hand, that was the 1970s and shit was crazy then.

Bill Benzon

[Sorry about that, Luther. Your comment showed up in the cue along with some comment spam. I accidentally deleted your comment when I deleted the spam.]

I like JPool's set of questions from 9:01 AM. It's not clear to me that we will really be able to get a handle on those things until everything has been digitized and we can set some clever digital agents loose in there and see what they can trace out. Even if the do the best possible job, there will be holes in our understanding.

& I'm curious about the the use of the word "canon" to designate the set of texts "worthy of preservation and of being taught to undergraduates as deserving of their most serious attention." The word may have been around during my undergraduate and graduate years (late 60s through mid-70s) but I don't recall it being used so often or so routinely, at least not during the 60s. So I'm wondering of it's routine use can be traced back to the beginnings of the so-called canon wars.

Ahistoricality

It's not clear to me that we will really be able to get a handle on those things until everything has been digitized and we can set some clever digital agents loose in there and see what they can trace out. Even if the do the best possible job, there will be holes in our understanding.

That's a lousy attitude, epistemologically speaking. Of course there will be holes in our understanding; that's the nature of historical inquiry. It's never a complete reconstruction of the past, but we still learn an immense amount from the attempt.

There are already historians -- and some lit folks -- working on these questions; have been for years. To relegate their work -- incredibly detailed, painstaking and ambitious -- to "clever digital agents" is to grossly misunderstand the questions, or the historical process of answering them.

SEK

It's almost certainly because, like Ahist, I'm a historian, but it seems to me that your efforts here to redefine the word canon act as a poor substitute for a set of more direct questions

I think this is where we're miscommunicating: I'm not redefining the word "canon," I'm using it the way it's been used in English departments for decades. I'm not advocating the word be used this way---in fact, I'm pointing out the silliness of doing so. But it's a historically grounded silliness, so it's not one I can wave away on the grounds of inherent silliness. Put differently, I think it's obvious that I'm agreeing with you here:

What kinds of influence has a particular text had or does it continue to have? How does a particular text represent or respond to other texts or to ideas in the broader culture? What kinds of cultural capital were associated with reading/knowledge of a particular text at different points in time?

That's what I do. But it's not what everyone in my discipline does, and in fact, many people in my discipline don't think people like me belong in my discipline. (Some days, I don't think so either.) So:

If you frame the question even more broadly, as in your "What do/did Americans think about Europe?" example, then clearly literature, whether "canonical," "non-canonical" or "carved into a barroom table," is only ever going to be part of the answer, one kind of evidence.

That was the point of my riff on Peanuts: Lucy's giving the American Studies answer, Charlie Brown's skepticism is kin to mine. While I do think a mind like James may've had special insight into these problems, I don't think we can assume that he did in the absence of other evidence; in fact, I don't think we can even know whether he did without reading similar accounts by his contemporaries. How do we know it's special?

So I'm wondering of it's routine use can be traced back to the beginnings of the so-called canon wars.

I believe so. Graff's Professing Literature has some solid material on this, but the short version is, yes, the definition of canon currently in circulation's the by-product of New Critical orneriness and conservative push-back.

I've got a post half-written responding to Luther, because I think he's shorting comics on account of their being so few great critics of comic literature; that is, Homer seems to contain a lot more multitudes because thousands of astute critics have plumbed its ambiguities. More on that later in the week.

Bill Benzon

To relegate their work -- incredibly detailed, painstaking and ambitious -- to "clever digital agents" is to grossly misunderstand the questions, or the historical process of answering them.

Well, I'm glad they're happy with their current tools and don't want anything more.

Ahistoricality

Wow.

I admit, I was being a bit strident. But that's just hostile.

Luther Blissett

JPool, I don't buy the relativism you're selling. It's all about risk. The risk of a failed soup has little at stake. I'm not talking about the personal risk of the creator (i.e., a bad soup could cost him his job). I'm talking about taking on a task so daring that more can go wrong more often. An epic poem takes more of everything human than a great soup. Both can be great, but there are degrees of greatness. The risk of capturing a man's life, of giving an audience the experience of the entire shape of a man's life, of capturing the experience of what it means to be fully human in a particular time and place, is riskier than the most daring culinary task.

And of course, historians should *not* have an idea of a canon. It runs counter to their goals. Everything should be grist for the historian's mill. But that's the difference between history and English. Without that difference, English is a stupid footnote to history. If your problems are historical, literature is a limited way to solve them. So if English is to have a purpose, it must have its own problems. And those are problems of what I call greatness.

Third, I don't think the idea of the canon we have is New Critical. (New Critics could barely deal with the novel, and so much of the canon today is about the novel.) No, I'd say we have a very Arnoldian view of the canon. I'll let Arnold speak for himself:

"Yes; constantly in reading poetry, a sense for the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, should be present in our minds and should govern out estimate of what we read. But this real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fallacious. A poet or a poem may count to us historically, they may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves, and they may count to us really. They may count to us historically. The course of development of a nation's language, thought, and poetry, is profoundly interesting; and by regarding a poet's work as a stage in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than in itself it really is, we may come to use a language of quite exaggerated praise in criticizing it; in short, to overrate it. So arises in our poetic judgments the fallacy caused by the estimate we may call historic." (from *The Study of Poetry*)

Finally, I don't agree with SEK's statement that "Homer seems to contain a lot more multitudes because thousands of astute critics have plumbed its ambiguities." I am a total amateur when it comes to Homer, which is precisely why I go to him anymore as an example of greatness. I've read parts of one academic study of his work (Eva Braun's stunning *Homeric Moments*). What I love about Homer I've found in Homer myself, mostly by teaching *The Odyssey*, four classes each day, four nearly four months. When fifteen and sixteen year olds want to spend twenty minutes arguing about a single epic simile, I think you can say that a 3000 year old poem contains multitudes.

Bill Benzon

But that's just hostile.

Well, since my original remark started out by endorsing a set of questions you posed, that's rather how I felt about your reply, that it was just hostile.

Martin Wisse


The risk of capturing a man's life, of giving an audience the experience of the entire shape of a man's life, of capturing the experience of what it means to be fully human in a particular time and place, is riskier than the most daring culinary task.

A bad soup can kill a person, bad poems only shame their creators.

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