Friday, June 8, 2007

The Canon

Here are some upcoming topics:
* Cult films/cult records
* Books/films you "had to see in high school"

Here's something I wrote down on a receipt in the subway the other day (no shit). Additions to the receipt-manuscript are in brackets:

If the materialist subject cannot be said to be adequately represented by the transitory and socially-determined fashions (intellectual, religious, or otherwise) of the day---say, if we were Greeks, we would wear Togas instead of tight jeans [Therefore our fashion cannot be said to say anything about us without relating it to a moment and its cultural field. It seems for a moment that there is nothing to "anchor" us to ourselves as existing in some metaphysical personhood; ie: our feelings of identity would be illusory and merely/entirely historically contingent.

Thus the terror of the elementary school alternative-history version of World War II: "If we had lost to the Nazis, we would all be speaking German right now." But, see, would that really be US? I mean, the same US? So my 8-year-old thinking ran.]

However, THE CANON comes to the rescue, presenting itself as a function of what would be true for this subject at any time, and so regardless of time. Sophocles is always great because of who I essentially am. So, when we say that some [work of] art is timeless, we mean this over and against the concerns of any given (historical) present concerns--ie: the particular determinations of the subject beholden to the ephemera of history.

Thus, the canon (understood in this way) is both oriented towards a set of "pasts" [with their own determinations] and constitutes a kind of permanent avant-garde in advance of its future appropriation. One would always be a Shakespeare fan, even if we dressed in metallic future-suits and ate food in pill-form: [the classic work is "outside of time" not in some mystical/bourgeois way but so that the subject might be as well.]

1 comment:

Seth said...

It's a tough rescue, though -- because while the canon is "given" as primarily interactive [just like you've laid out in the last paragraphs], a medium for self-discovery, for the laying bare of your own [our own, everybody's collective] universalizable and ahistorical subjectivity, the '90s canon wars were basically entirely about realizing that the canon performs precisely the same pseudo-individuation tight jeans can/do, and with far subtler and far more entrenched technological modes: a lesson that, I think, has moved people away from the imperial canonclaims like "Brontë tells you something about being you" and toward the litany of supposedly counterhegemonic arguments that disgrace art as by definition heteronomous and read [like Spivak, most famously] supposedly transcendent/sublime bricks in the canon as the most significantly entangled and political pieces of all.

Adorno avoids this basically by not writing about capital-L Literature and mass art/plastic art/entertainment music/pulp fiction in the same books and articles he uses to mount his and H's major theory of the economics of culture. And when he does develop his [gorgeous] critiques of modernist musics and novels he thinks are worth his time -- Beckett, Schönberg, et al. -- the way he establishes a canon is, I think, something that might have made both sides in the canon wars [those who believe in the importance of reading Disraeli and those who think he was the Antichrist] very happy. For Adorno, the canon consists in what we'd probably be best-off calling its "critical immanence" or better "the critical potential of its being immanent" It's precisely because Disraeli was the Antichrist, and because his novels were written at a time when They picked the corpses of starved and diseased children off the streets of London with pitchforks while nobody'd ever had more salt and saffron to play with, that they are mimetically -and- aesthetically "honest" [i.e., each "tells it like it is" which for Adorno is always inhuman and totally so and it "tells it how it is" in tortured, thin, allusive prose] thereby transcending its time by offering up a portrait of its time's disease to posterity. And as simple as this is, it seems to me the only supportable canon: non-Utopian because it's so deeply Hegel-by-way-of-Marx, non-populist because of the importance of the "how" it is, and because it allows for a new hermaneutic attack on each work -whenever- one feels like bothering.