[-empyre-] digital canon cannons

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Thu Mar 19 18:24:18 EST 2009

> Message: 4
> Date: Wed, 18 Mar 2009 13:38:39 -0400
> From: davin heckman <davinheckman at gmail.com>
> Subject: Re: [-empyre-] empyre Digest, Vol 52, Issue 15
> To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
> Message-ID:
> 	<ff0cfe080903181038r303700abu197af7761d3fa85e at mail.gmail.com>
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> 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.
I agree with you, but the economic/academic issues are one thing although 
intertwined with the other, what's acceptable or not acceptable, say, as 
new media, e-poetry, digital literature, whatever. The canon _is_ class 
and class _is_ canonic; both are tied by what John Murray Cuddihy years 
ago wrote about in The Ordeal of Civility - think of the canon as a form 
of etiquette or acceptability, and you see how these things tie together.

> 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.

This doesn't follow at all - in fact the canon abjures social responsi- 
bility, since it's more or less fixed, almost as an ideal object - instead 
of dealing with concrete situations of audiences, authors, recognitions, 
misrecognitions, and so forth.

> 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.
Here I most strongl disagree with you. I have no idea why the absence of 
canon implies "post-historical thinking" (whatever that is, and why that 
would be a "settling" is beyond me); certainly the absence of canon 
doesn't imply any sort of absolute relativism, only that there are no 
canonic standards.

It's ridiculous to think that the absence of a canon implies lawlessness 
or whatever - this is way overboard. It only implies, as with Derrida or 
Jane Gallup, whomever, that when one reads, one reads closely.

> 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.
The canon _is_ privilege _is_ class, whatever. See Bourdieu's Distinction. 
There's no reason why that "bit of standing" couldn't come about, say, as 
much through James M. Cain as through Hemingway - I'd say quite a bit more 
in fact. And they're probably relate better to James Lee Burke or Nelson 
Algren than to Faulkner. One has nothing to do with the other.

God, my degree is from Brown and gets ridiculed all the time; I don't 
think that's a measure of a relation to tradition...

> 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."

I agree here - and for me what you describe is precisely keeping 
everything open - don't forget again that "the traditional high culture 
paths to success" pretty much describes the canonic approach.

I'm sorry at my end by the way to keep harping on this - but for me 
personally, and for a lot of people I know, these are very real issues 
that affect audience, production, employment, even the ability to remain 
alive. The canon is precise and precisely exclusionary, no matter how it 
changes; it's a form of contestation that is miserable to say the least. 
Like everyone else, I get tired of being told my work isn't poetry, isn't 
literature, isn't music, isn't new media, isn't interactive, isn't 
e-poetry - whatever - and all that really means is that my work isn't 
really acceptable to view in a particular manner, and all that really 
means is that my work isn't acceptable. I've fought this damn battle my 
whole life, and with the wide-open fielding and languaging, whatever, of 
what passes for literature related to digital and electronic domains, a 
lot of other people find themselves having to fight the same: The 
wide-open fielding exists by virtue of cultural production, but the 
canonic restrictions on the same - and their socio-culturo-economic 
consequences - are devastating - even to the point of staying alive or 
finding people to simply see what one is doing. (The sentence is awkward, 
it's late, apologies.)
>> 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.

There's no electronic literature; there are electronic literatures and 
otherwise literatures and the subcultures, to the extent that they exist 
and might need preserving - need to carry on outside of restraint.

> 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.

The only barrier to entry is the barrier to just _looking._

> 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.

Trust me, the canon is already in place; I could point to source after 
source, text after text, but I want to avoid personality here.

> 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.

Do we know where the houses are? How many here have seen the literary 
works in Second Life? Which don't fit in with the canon either. I also 
think that electronic literature is everywhere online and it's our 
blinders and lack of research that makes it appears as if it were produced 
by a small group of people. I'm always coming across things all over the 
place. Go to a certain SL site and enter some words and watch images and 
sources float and flicker in the sky from all over the Net. Speak 
elsewhere and watch the letters float from a well full of design. Move 
through another location of 17 songs and see how objects embody texts and 
murmurs. And this is just SL - what about all of the other languages, 
cultures, communities online? For me one of the strongest digital cultures 
presented itself in newsgroups - but who even thinks of alt.hack or 
alt.fan.dirty-whore as paradigmatic at this point? Not to mention bbs work 
or fidonet work or the stuff inside the Net RFC repositories.

We're cutting our own throats in the name of an expansion that appears 
liberal on the surface but to me is actually a form of endocolonization.

>> - 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).

Oh, I agree - at least for me this is quite a great and useful discussion 
- I hope it's not dominating the list...

- Alan, and thanks

> Peace!
> Davin
>>> Peace!
>>> Davin
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>> | Alan Sondheim Mail archive:  http://sondheim.rupamsunyata.org/
>> | To access the Odyssey exhibition The Accidental Artist:
>> | http://slurl.com/secondlife/Odyssey/48/12/22
>> | Webpage (directory) at http://www.alansondheim.org
>> | sondheim at panix.com, sondheim at gmail.org, tel US 718-813-3285
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> ------------------------------
> Message: 5
> Date: Wed, 18 Mar 2009 13:47:40 -0700
> From: "Jim Andrews" <jim at vispo.com>
> Subject: [-empyre-] Related to digital poetry: 'flarf' and 'conceptual
> 	writing'
> To: "Soft_Skinned_Space" <empyre at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
> Message-ID: <CE96D82A7A514C418919436A065CA8D5 at OwnerPC>
> Content-Type: text/plain; format=flowed; charset="iso-8859-1";
> 	reply-type=original
> Thought I'd forward this from the Poetics list (Buffalo). Ken Goldsmith, by
> the way, is the creator of http://ubu.com .
> ja
> http://vispo.com
> On Friday, April 17 the Whitney Museum of American Art presents eight
> poets associated with two cutting-edge movements in contemporary
> poetry: the Flarf Collective and Conceptual Writing. The followers of
> both movements employ technology to create their works, often using
> strategies familiar to the visual arts: appropriation, falsification,
> insincerity, and plagiarism.  Fusing the avant-garde impulses of the
> last century with the technologies of the present, these strategies
> propose an expanded field for twenty-first century poetry. This new
> writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book; it
> continually morphs from printed page to webpage, from gallery space
> to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social
> spaces of blogs. It is a poetics of flux, celebrating instability and
> uncertainty.
> Featured poets are Christian B?k, Nada Gordon, Kenneth Goldsmith,
> Sharon Mesmer, K. Silem Mohammad, Kim Rosenfield, Gary Sullivan and
> Darren Wershler.
> This event was conceived and organized by poet Kenneth Goldsmith on
> the occasion of the Jennny Holzer exhibition PROTECT PROTECT.
> Reading begins at 7, and is free with Museum Admission, which is pay-
> what-you-wish during Whitney After Hours on Fridays from 6-9 pm.
> Advance reservations are recommended. Tickets may be reserved at the
> Museum Admissions desk or online at http://www.whitney.org.
> Inquiries: (212) 570-7715 or public_programs at whitney.org/
> ------------------------------
> _______________________________________________
> empyre mailing list
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre
> End of empyre Digest, Vol 52, Issue 16
> **************************************

| Alan Sondheim Mail archive:  http://sondheim.rupamsunyata.org/
| To access the Odyssey exhibition The Accidental Artist:
| http://slurl.com/secondlife/Odyssey/48/12/22
| Webpage (directory) at http://www.alansondheim.org
| sondheim at panix.com, sondheim at gmail.org, tel US 718-813-3285

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