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

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Thu Mar 19 04:38:39 EST 2009

On Wed, Mar 18, 2009 at 3:08 AM, Alan Sondheim <sondheim at panix.com> wrote:
>> 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.

I definitely agree with you, at least in terms of the historical role
of the canon.  It is something that is shaped by academia and it does
influence how people think.  But having little experience with any
kind of formal canon--I did a miserable job at the GRE English subject
test as a consequence--I can only say that I don't find the canon
itself particularly threatening.  Academics and our opinions seem
fairly insignificant today, unless you happen to be situated at a
handful of schools.  I'm not saying that I want to be "powerful," but
I just can't help but notice that an entirely different set of powers
have stepped into replace the canon...  and I cannot say that I like
them.  Scholars (most of us now working as temp workers, the lucky
ones with some kind of semi-permanent 4/4 (or 5/5) position, and even
some of those lucky ones who do get tenure) just kind of arrange
ourselves around what other people say--namely, people who are paid to
write books every year even if they have nothing to say.  Officially,
we can talk back all we want to--But there are some structural
barriers imposed on lower-tier academics which keep people with good
ideas from writing them down, and there are some cultural barriers
which do cause people in the upper tiers to question the rigor and
ability of working professors.  And, so while I am sympathetic about
what the canon does to people, I also cannot ignore the actual crisis
facing the academia right now.  And I think that crisis is one of
neoliberalism.  I do think a canon is being created.  But nobody is
writing it down, because it is immaterial, cultural, and ephemeral.
But it is there.  Some people know it, and if you don't know it, then
you're cut out of the conversation.  And perhaps, it is all the more
insidious because people believe that doing away with the formalities
means that the underlying historical purpose of the canon disappears.
The problem is not the archive.  The problem is class.  Getting rid of
the canon without first addressing the root, is the same thing as
closing down a failing school and offering nothing in its place.
Inequalities will just grow.

>> 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
> engenders.
>> 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.

Having never been paid as a critic, but having just as much to say
about the world, I would say that you do have a responsibility to
everyone else who does not have the same pulpit.  We are everywhere in
the habit of thinking that we are responsible to ourselves and those
who pay our bills, but these are the last people that we should worry
about.  And I think this is the problem.  The problem with the canon
is that the people who made it felt no responsibility to a community
beyond their own.  The problem with no canon is that the people who
advocate it run the risk of feeling no social responsibility for the
knowledge they create.  And here, I think is where the rubber hits the
road when we talk about criticism.  Communication is not an act
pursued in isolation.  It implies a community.  Why would you want to
destroy the canon?  Because it projects a limited view of the
community.  Why would we want to be careful about getting rid of the
canon?  Because, with no archive for the community, there is no
standard against which we can judge our success or failure.  You put
something down in writing...  and the canon is a project of
authorship...  people can engage with that record, and either affirm
or critique it.  But when you settle on post-historical thinking, then
there is no measure, there is no law, there is no recourse beyond
assertion, and the people who run this world seem fairly good at
asserting their privileges.  Here, I think, is where I really, really
like Habermas.  But maybe I am just ranting against a world that no
longer exists.

>> 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-
> where...
> 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 -

I would get farther away from Norton, but only about 1/3 of my first
year students have never read a novel in their entire lives.  And I
would say the majority, if they have read anything at all, it is mass
market fiction.  If they ever want to get their hands on power, I need
to teach them cultural skills.  I'd love to spend their first year
effacing the edifice of traditional "high culture," but the edifice
needs to be there if we are going to engage in this process.
Otherwise, you're just attacking the building that burnt down before
they entered kindergarten. I don't know where you went to college, but
I have had the unfortunate experience of someone from an Ivy League
school unkindly ridiculing my degree from Bowling Green State
University.  So believe me when I say it, I am not in love with
tradition.  But the canon is not the problem.  Privilege is the
problem.  I believe that the canon offers people, especially if they
come from a working class background, a bit of standing.  It affords
them first the opportunity to speak, and second it can serve as a
lever to move the discussion.

What would this mean for electronic literature?  It's hard to say.  It
certainly shades my preferences.  I enjoy reading works that shed some
light on the way the world works.  I like works that tend to
circumvent the traditional high culture paths to success.  But I also
like works which can engage with a meaningful critique of the powers
that conceal themselves under high culture and prestige.  In enjoy
reading works which subvert the priorities of the "new economy."

>From an artists' perspective, and I'm no artist, I would say that it
might be important not to get too hung up on definitions.  But I think
for someone who is not an engaged reader of electronic literature,
offering definitions and examples are stepping stones into
participation.  If we would like to preserve electronic literature as
a "subculture" then it is a good idea to avoid definitions and prevent
easy entry into the community of connoisseurs.  In order to "be
somebody" in a subculture, you have to present a deep literacy of a
body of knowledge that can attest to your long-term appreciation and
cultivated sense of being.  You might not be writing a canon, but the
lack of a specified canon and set of concepts becomes a barrier to
entry.  In effect, it serves a similar purpose to a canon (really, to
the place of elite cultural knowledge BEFORE the first formal canons
were proposed).  But if we want to turn more people on to electronic
literature, we should be going out of our way to provide points of
entry into literacy.  Maybe at some point, providing definitions and
offering up paradigmatic examples of important works of electronic
literature will someday result in a canon and all the attendant
possibilities.  But for now, these things offer people the opportunity
to read something they otherwise wouldn't.  It's pragmatic and it is
not without flaws, but I would argue that it might be the most ethical
approach considering that the current audience for electronic
literature is small, dominated by people with Ph.D.s and MFAs (or who
are working on them), and so we see works made for a small community
by a small community.  Which is good for incubation purposes, but
which is hardly subversive to the idea of rareified culture.  The best
thing for electronic literature would be to attract as many readers as
possible, from as many backgrounds as possible, so that we can broaden
the pool of representations available.  I agree, let them burn the
house down.  But we should at least be kind enough to tell them where
the houses are.

> - Alan, thanks

Thank you, Alan.  (I hope I am not coming off as too cantankerous.  I
am actually enjoying this debate.  But if I am grinding my class ax
too hard, just know that I am writing from a small town in Michigan,
where official unemployment statistics are over 10%, but where the
actual unemployment rate might be closer to 20%.  Having had the
pleasure of working with you in the past, I hope you understand that
these disagreements I have, though substantial, are not in the least
bit personal.  I am already finding inconsistencies in my own
arguments, but haven't had the time to really catalog them...  so know
that I am listening to you, too).


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