[-empyre-] empyre Digest, Vol 52, Issue 15

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Wed Mar 18 18:08:44 EST 2009

> Message: 2
> Date: Tue, 17 Mar 2009 10:31:41 -0400
> From: davin heckman <davinheckman at gmail.com>
> Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Towards (noh) theory of digital poetics
> To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
> Message-ID:
> 	<ff0cfe080903170731i693b6d9r9487fa60a76fbe2c at mail.gmail.com>
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> Personally, I prefer detailed replies. It's exactly what I need to
> open up my thinking.
> I do wonder if a canon is such a horrible thing.  In a sense, things
> get canonized anyways.  Right now, Amazon is building a canon.  The
> New York Times bestseller list is building a canon.  Google is
> building a canon.  The canons are based on consumption patterns, which
> are easily skewed by PR techniques.  Also, scholars pick and choose
> what we teach, and, unfortunately, this is often just based on who is
> the "hot" theorist or which subjects are prioritized in current
> criticism.  And, while this idea of a poorly formed canon is appealing
> to me.  I also think it allows other priorities, unnamed priorities,
> to drive the formation of taste.  So, you have canons that are formed
> by who can generate better press, how much space there is in the
> marketplace, which cultural leaders have embraced it, and whether or
> not you can make money off it.
I can't agree with you here. The canon is often formed from academia - the 
Greek and Roman canons, Anglo-Saxon canon, and so forth are more than 
enough evidence of that. Things don't "get canonized anyway" - it a much 
more deep-structural thing than that. Look at the female authors excluded 
in so much 18th-19th century studies up until recently, not to mention 
subaltern literatures, and so forth. It's insidious, it shapes the way we 
look at the world, and it usually constructs or reaffirms a dominant 
ideography. It's not just past history either - it affects our readong, 
for example, of experimental film or even what constitutes a digital 
poetics. It's connected with grants, publications, seminars, conferences, 
and so forth - in other words, power, academic and artistic power, insofar 
as power is defined in relation to the ability to distribute or diffuse 
work - and most of the work we're talking about isn't highly popular - 
it's not a question of that.

> But more importantly, having a canon, knowing what we know about
> language and the value of such things, just makes critics more
> accountable.    Then you can actually hold someone responsible, if
> they write a book and it comes out of U of Chicago Press, and as a
> consequence, everybody starts focusing on their idea, and neglecting
> something else important, you can point to this as a weakness in our
> system of knowledge.

It seems to me that the weakness is your very statement above, which is 
circular in a sense, in that it supports the whole idea of a canon. What 
does it mean to "hold someone responsible" in a situation without 
verification procedures? And it's precisely neglect that the canon 

> If you are going to make a statement as a
> critic, then you have to first admit that you are engaging in power,
> and the idea of a canon provides a nice tidy node to hang these
> discursive threads so that other people can worship them or curse
> them.

Absolutely not! I've worked as a critic, even been paid as a critic, and 
it's for me to decide what I "have to first admit" - this is your take on 
things, a particular critical take, which one may or may not buy into.

> It means that people can and should take more care when they
> select texts.  I have been fairly happy with the Norton Anthology,
> which creates a canon, but then I can also give my students things
> that are NOT in the book.  (The ELO Collections also serve this
> function).  This usually generates a pretty fantastic discussion about
> the canon.  The same with electronic literature, we start with a
> definition of literature, but after they look at a few pieces, they
> start getting uncomfortable with the definition of literature they
> created on the first day of class.  Then, eventually, as they look for
> their own works, they get unhappy with my syllabus.

I couldn't argue with your teaching methods, of course - if they work, 
that's great. I'd never use the Norton myself - I'm far more interested in 
work that's not represented there. I don't buy into anyone's collection - 
and with the net, gutenberg, etc., I don't have to of course.
> In this way, definitions, especially those which are held in earnest,
> can be a really good tool.  They might not be what the artist needs,
> but they certainly seem helpful for more general readers.  And, as a
> critic, I find them useful--in the same way that Derrida uses
> definitions.  You jump off of them, head out into strange territory,
> and then circle back.  (I'm just not as smart....  imagine if Derrida
> spent a significant portion of his life huffing gas and watching
> demolition derbies...  that's about where I am at intellectually.)

I'm not sure about Derrida and definitions; I think he'd fine them (a bad 
typo but worthwhile to keep in the sense perhaps of a cultural economy) 
problematic, foundationless - one wouldn't circle back but worry else- 

I have a lot of experience with canon-building as a curator, editor, and 
critic at times - as well as watching histories of experimental film and 
video unfold (new media thank god is too new for such glue). And I want 
more than anything to efface this building, which I find is a kind of 
cultural interference - not opening us to new possibility, but in fact 
placing blinkers on us. If I'd read Lucan or the Moselle when I was in 
college, for example, instead of Vergil, I'd be a lot better off, I think. 
Of course there's no way to know - but it took me years and years to shake 
off the classical canon and see things fresh and different - and see other 
things. I remember Serres on Lucretius 'my contemporary' - which is the 
kind of engagement I think is the moost successful - not proceed 
canonically, but proceeding among writers, literatures, and cultures, 
following and opening up different possibilities, trails, traces. And this 
is most needed with digital literature which is already strangling under 
far too many definitions - in what? a couple of decades really? Maybe not 
even that much. It's absurd - far better to think around fields and waves 
- any modeling that doesn't promulgate models, boundaries, or restrictions 
- for one thing, wonder increases the further one gets from defining -

- Alan, thanks

> Peace!
> Davin
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> End of empyre Digest, Vol 52, Issue 15
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