(Un)Canonical

I find tedious and boring repeated arguments that young(er) scholars are unread and under-read. I find tedious and boring repeated arguments that young(er) scholars would be somehow better had they dedicated themselves to Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Melville and Hawthorne, Henry James and T.S. Eliot. I note that many of us still dedicate ourselves to these authors. I find tedious and predictable repeated arguments that young(er) scholars who choose to work on non-canonical and peri-canonical and un-canonical authors do so from some sense of deficiency: somehow, we were not “exposed” to the right people or we did not read Matthew Arnold as well as we might have.

If anecdote suffices, most people who choose to work non-canonically do so after having gone through canonical training. It is not that we choose to read, say, Ngugi instead of Dickens. It is that we read Dickens and then carve out time to read Ngugi. The sense that we who focus on non-canonical authors—by which I really do mean the canon of white men taken to represent Literature, a narrow sanctified space in which an Achebe and Ngugi are still not welcome—do so out of lack is wrongheaded, if not malicious.

Those of us trained to read contextually know that one cannot teach Countee Cullen or Audre Lorde without reading the Romantics from whom they drew inspiration. James Baldwin makes no sense without Henry James. Langston Hughes needs Whitman. Césaire needs Shakespeare. Contextual reading, and this is what young(er) scholars focus on, does not mark the absence of knowledge. It marks a choice. It marks labor.

And it is labor that lies at the heart of many young(er) scholars’ projects. A term that appears nowhere in Mark Edmundson’s tedious opposition between “pleasure” and “value.” He argues that young(er) cultural workers—to be fair, he does not indict young(er) scholars, or does so obliquely—are uncomfortable with processes of evaluation, and lack the languages (and perhaps dispositions) necessary to distinguish between, say, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and The Simpsons:

[Younger cultural critics] may sense that Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience are in some manner more valuable, more worth pondering, more worth preserving than The Simpsons. They may sense as much. But they do not have the terminology to explain why. They never heard the arguments. The professors who should have been providing the arguments when the No More Western Culture marches were going on never made a significant peep. They never quoted Matthew Arnold on the best that’s been thought and said—that would have been embarrassing. They never quoted Emerson on the right use of reading—that might have been silly. (It’s to inspire.) They never told their students how Wordsworth had saved Mill’s life by restoring to him his ability to feel. They never showed why difficult pleasures might be superior to easy ones. They never even cited Wilde on the value of pure and simple literary pleasure.

The academy failed and continues to fail to answer the question of value, or even to echo the best of the existing answers. But entertainment culture suffers no such difficulty. Its rationale is simple, clear, potent: The products of the culture industry are good because they make you feel good. They produce immediate and readily perceptible pleasure. Beat that, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Touch it if you can, Emily Dickinson.

At best, the argument is silly.

Those I know best read Arnold and Barbara Hernstein Smith, understood the relationship, not opposition, between the long slow read and the short quick read, and, now, move fluently between Paradise Lost and Zong!

If now we attend to how canons are formed, transmitted, and transformed, it does not suggest an inattention to value and evaluation so much as a refusal to see those terms as self-evident. We do pay attention to the labor of aesthetics, to how cultural products make us feel and act, shape our orientations toward each other and to the world, offer us hope and pleasure, and also create spaces for introspection and reflection.

Value remains a necessarily contested term. Pleasure also remains a contested term. Young(er) cultural critics may not speak in accents or “echoes” that Edmundson finds familiar and comforting, but it is disingenuous to suggest, as he does, that we remain uninterested in profound questions of cultural and historical valuation.