on scholarship

ESTRAGON: That’s the idea, let’s abuse each other.
    [They turn, move apart, turn again and face each other.]
VLADIMIR: Abortion!
ESTRAGON: Morpion!
VLADIMIR: Sewer-rat!
ESTRAGON: (with finality). Crritic!
    [He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.]

–Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Back in the day, two of my college professors, who happened to be married, were old-school, medievalist, analytical bibliographers. That is, their work concerned the physical analysis and description of books. I took a research methods course from one of them, and although I am not an analytical bibliographer, my approach to language and literature is still heavily influenced by something they used to say, “You can be a critic, or you can be a scholar. It’s better to be a scholar.”

I realize the distinction could be called arbitrary, but it’s a quote that comes to mind when I read someone using the phrase “test of time” to describe how the modern literary canon came to be. “Time” is not an historical agent that conducts “tests” upon things to see what will survive and what will not. Writing exists in a world inhabited by people who make choices about what will be commissioned, copied, published, purchased, stolen, pirated, revised, taught in school, taught in church, read for pleasure, read for enlightenment, read for salvation, banned, smuggled, translated, adapated, bowdlerized, grangerized, set to music, given as gifts, and any number of other acts that take place among literate human beings.

These choices differ from one region to another and from one time period to another. We know these choices differ because we have a great deal of historical material from which we construct (and reconstruct) the complicated picture of literary history. Existing alongside these literate practices is the fact that texts themselves have physical properties that make them more or less suited to survival, and what we can and cannot recover from the past changes as new technologies are developed.

To believe that the canon is an example of literary justice is to believe that all of these things, across time and space, somehow conspired to present to you, the precious modern reader, only the best of what has ever been written. Man, you’ve gotta have some kind of big head to believe that, don’t you?

In his influential 1957 work, The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt argues that we must consider the importance of cultural context if we are to understand how this now prevalent genre first appeared:

Defoe, Richardson and Fielding do not in the usual sense constitute a literary school. Indeed their works show so little sign of mutual influence and are so different in nature that at first sight it appears that our curiosity about the rise of the novel is unlikely to find any satisfaction other than the meagre one afforded by the terms ‘genius’ and ‘accident,’ the twin faces on the Janus of the dead ends of literary history.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: having an opinion is fine. Having an informed opinion is even better.

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14 thoughts on “on scholarship

  1. Hear, hear. I think the reason I’m a historian and not a lit person was because of my whole problem with the idea of a canon and interest in those very people you talk about. That whole “test of time” thing drives me nuts – take Chaucer: even the generations immediately following him read, used, and changed him for their own ends.

  2. I agree with debunking the “test of time” trope.
    However, here’s a complication. You essentially stress the active agency of people in canon formation over time–people individually, people collectively, institutions of people, and so on. That people choose what they value.
    But one of the “rules of choice” in the particular history of the Western canon that comes into shape in the 19th and 20th Centuries is about Enlightenment conceptions of universalism. We can do a lot of critique of those ideas, and have done. But if one of the selection rules has to do with the “sustainability” of a work’s meaning, content, possibility, isn’t it also possible that the accumulation of those choices is beginning to produce a canon which has a kind of transhistorical, non-local value?
    It’s the paradox of Enlightenment/19th Century liberalism’s reinvention of the human subject. We can say that this reinvention is historical, not eternal–but that the new subject that results from it “works” in part because of its claims to universality. “Human rights” as a concept is quite distinctively modern–it’s impossible before 1750 or so. But observing its historicity does not destroy its ethical importance in the present, and that ethical importance is rooted in a claim to its universal applicability. “Individuality” as we experience it is a concept quite distinctively modern–but it’s now impossible to experience a subjectivity which is not inflected by individuality.
    Why not consider that culture and literature have experienced something similar, the possibillity that the “test of time” argument, while empirically wrong, begins to describe at least one of the selection principles that inconsistently but persisently weighs on “choices” of what to value in culture after 1800 or so? That there is a Shakespeare in the West pre-1800 who is valued or read largely in “local” or highly historically bounded ways, but after 1800 is increasingly valued inside an aesthetic that looks for the sustainably universal and “time-tested” in literature?
    It seems to me that to some extent a strong historicism in literary criticism is conducting a Trojan Horse critique on the proposition that the canon should be shaped or selected *by* some idea of sustainable meaning or long-term truth. You can observe that it has not been so, and that if it is so, it is because we *choose* that to be. But this is just a kind of ordinary social-constructionist argument: saying that a thing which self-presents as “natural” or “unconstructed” (“test of time”) is NOT natural or unconstructed. Ok, yes, fine, but merely observing the constructedness of a thing should not amount to a critique of it.
    So while it is fine to say that works do not naturally survive “the test of time”, the harder question is to say whether or not we should imagine that canons *should* be constructed around works that we believe might contain enough plasticity of meaning and possibility to speak to future audiences. One might deny that there is such an attribute, but I think that’s flatly wrong. There are clearly works of literature which are literally incomprehensible or at least uninteresting if you lack a very substantial knowledge of the specific period in which they were written. There are works which contain something intrinsic to them that permits a plasticity of readings. Some works do have short shelf lives; some works have longer ones. This is not just a function of readership, of externalities: it’s also an attribute of culture itself.

  3. Timothy, are you talking about “the canon” (singular) or canons (plural)? In paragraphs 3 and 6 of your comment, you seem to be writing of a singular canon, about which we could argue whether or not “time-tested” applies. Your last paragraph asks whether we should create canons (plural) using certain criteria.
    I ask because it’s a huge distinction. Most literary scholars, including myself (and Gzombie, I think,) would argue is that there is never just one Canon. There are always multiple canons coexisting at any one historical moment, within a particular cultural setting. Each is shaped by a variety of agents and institutions. (Standard references would include A. Fowler, “Genre and the Literary Canon” New Literary History 11 (1979): 97-119 and W. Harris, “Canonicity” PMLA 106 (1991):110-21.)
    Literary text are human artifacts. Thus they exist in history. I don’t understand what “transhistorical” value could possibly be.

  4. The vast majority of human artifacts don’t exist in history.
    But I don’t understand the grounds for Tim’s romantic move above at all. Seems, I don’t know, esemplastic or something.

  5. Timothy: “isn’t it also possible that the accumulation of those choices is beginning to produce a canon which has a kind of transhistorical, non-local value”
    If that were true, why would reading be at risk in America?
    Jonathan: “The vast majority of human artifacts don’t exist in history.”

  6. It seems rather clear to me.
    Perhaps you’re confusing actual history with potential history. Most of the things made by human hands are lost or destroyed. Inferring their (probable) existence is different than recording it.
    Though I again don’t agree with the romantic presuppositions of Tim’s comment, I don’t see how a decline in reading would necessarily be relevant to canon formation.

  7. It seems rather clear to me.
    We cannot argue that literature in the canon is there because it has transhistorical, universal appeal and then also argue that the reason canonical literature is not being read is because there’s something wrong with readers.

  8. If we used “transhistoricist,” the confusion would be avoided, I think.
    Mel wrote that “literary texts are human artifacts. Thus they exist in history.” The “thus” is not justified, I think.

  9. Yes, there are clearly multiple canons at any time existing in multiple institutional, regional, etc. contexts.
    I’m not sure why what I’m saying is “romantic”. It’s potentially contradictory–and George spots another interesting contradiction in the general rhetoric about “time-tested works of value”.
    Let me break it down:
    1) I think it’s possible to describe one of the rules of selection in the “classic” late 19th-early 20th Century literary canon as constructed by intellectuals and critics that a work be perceived as having universal or transhistorical values. This is a claim that I think is possible only in the historical aftermath of Enlightenment universalism, which as we know is in complicated ways not at all universal, or which imposes its highly particular version of universality by force as well as suasion. Nevertheless, just as “human rights” is a concept which has a historicity but which becomes a powerful “social and moral technology” once invented–and functions with an embedded notion of its universal applicability–it’s possible that the concept of a literature which is valued for its ability to be reinterpreted, for its plasticity of meaning, starts to become real precisely because this has been a selection rule in canon formation.
    2) Quite independently, I would suggest that “plasticity” is a concrete technical attribute that cultural works can have, similar to meter or metaphor, etcetera. Human beings can create material artifacts that have short life spans and long life spans, and can even do so on purpose as opposed to epiphenomenally. (Nobody intends that nuclear power plants create waste products with long lifespans, but cathedrals were built with a sense of their intended longevity, as a communication to future generations). African artworks were designed for practical use in ritual and everyday life, to be “used up”. Western artworks were even at an early time period frequently imagined to have a longevity, a meaning which carried forward into the future. This is an aesethic, an imaginary: but it might also be a concrete attribute of a cultural work itself. For example, at least a decent amount of postmodernist work requires the referent of modernism to make any sense at all; in popular culture, the mode of postmodern irony or humor has a very short shelf life, in my humble opinion, much as I might like it, because of its dense referentiality. Shakespeare’s longevity has something to do with the accumulation of readerships and interpretations, and also with the cumulative investment of many institutions in the propostion that Shakespeare has longevity, but I also think it’s an intrinsic attribute of his writing, particularly the prescience of modernity in it. Something “real” as well as something constructed. Texts can be open or relatively closed; historically local or historically expansive. Why is this a “romantic” proposition? Or if it is, why do we need a version of historicism which is completely and rigidly closed to it as a possibility?

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