Literary Canon
February 21, 2005 9:12 PM   Subscribe

I constantly hear about the Western Literary Canon, but I can never find a copy of it. Is it because there isn't just one canon, but many, written by many people, over many time periods? If so, wouldn't I hear references to Literary Canons instead of THE Literary Canon?

Was there one Western Literary Canon to begin with and then many literary canons created to respond to it? If so, where is this original canon?
posted by jessicool to Writing & Language (71 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't understand your question. In my understanding of the term, the Canon is a figurative collection of the important works of a particular group, so the Western Canon might include Joyce, Hemingway, Shakespeare, etc., with a flexible list of works which are dependent upon the particular views of whoever's using the term, but there's no actual physical collection of said works which are considered the Collection. The closest thing would probably be all of the scholarly anthologies put together, something like all of the Norton Anthologies put in a big stack.

Is this what you're refering to, or am I misinterpreting your question?
posted by mmcg at 9:18 PM on February 21, 2005


Here is a history of the Modern Great Books Movement (courtesy of Ethereal Bligh).
posted by mlis at 9:28 PM on February 21, 2005


The term "canon" is really used in two very different ways:

1) In a religious context--especially a Catholic/Christian one--the term "canon" refers to the texts that are officially accepted as part of the Bible. While there was a lot of debate and argument in the first couple of centuries of the Christian church over what texts were and weren't part of the canon, it did represent a formal list of what was and wasn't "canonical". Any version of the Catholic/Protestant Bible you buy is going to have the same collection of texts in it, and that's the canon. (For a lot more background on how those specific texts got picked, read someone like Elaine Pagels--especially The Gnostic Gospels.)

2) In a literary context, like you're talking about, the term is used much more loosely and subjectively. There's not a single list that's a matter of debate, but a lot of candidates for "great books" that should or shouldn't be considered cornerstones of the Western literary tradition.

Part of the reason for that is that the idea itself is just so large, that you either have to 85,000 books in it, making it uselessly large, or you're automatically reduced to annoying squabbles over what is or isn't in.

(All of Shakespeare, or just Hamlet and Macbeth? The sonnets, too? Most people don't know them, but they're really good, right? But then that opens up the whole can of worms over whether the WLC represents _quality_, in terms of rarefied esthetic accomplishment, or _impact_, in which case you're going to start including books that aren't very good, but a lot of people read.)

A lot of ink has been spilled over that debate, but it's pretty much unresolvable, at least in the way you're thinking of. Some of that ink has been very productive, along the lines of the Great Books movement MLIS refers to, but it's still by no means conclusive.
posted by LairBob at 9:33 PM on February 21, 2005


Wikipedia has an article on the Western canon. Wikipedia is down right now, but here is an alternate link. One of the most definitive versions of the canon was developed by Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago. here is a link to a version of the canon compiled by Hutchins.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 9:41 PM on February 21, 2005


mmcg- you interpreted my question correctly- thank you for your answer.

I guess I was just confused because the way it is referred to as the literary canon, seems to imply that it's not figurative. I didn't really think it was- but I had to be sure.

So when everyone is arguing that the literary canon doesn't represent women and minorities fairly, they're just referring to collections of works that are anthologized and taught in schools, not a specific list somewhere.

Interesting. I never heard anyone ever say it actually existed or not.
posted by jessicool at 9:42 PM on February 21, 2005


Oh, and here is some more info on Hutchins's work on developing his version of the canon.

On preview: if it's a particular book you're looking for jessicool, you might want to check out the second link in my first comment. To quote from the first sentence of the article: "The Great Books of the Western World is a series of books originally published in the United States in 1952 by Encyclopædia Britannica Inc."
posted by EatenByAGrue at 9:46 PM on February 21, 2005


Er, to finish the sentence and to re-link to the article: "The Great Books of the Western World is a series of books originally published in the United States in 1952 by Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. in an attempt to present the western canon in a single package of 54 volumes." That's probably as close as you'll get to an actual compilation of the Western canon.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 9:49 PM on February 21, 2005


Then there was Harold Bloom's take - The Western Canon (1995).

Check the Table of Contents for the list of authors.
posted by bright cold day at 10:09 PM on February 21, 2005


I once heard Bloom claims to read some insane amount of pages per minute. Anybody happen to know how many?

I can't remember- but judging on how many books he has criticized- it might be true.
posted by jessicool at 10:21 PM on February 21, 2005


I thought that, at least at one time, one determined what was or wasn't included in the cannon by looking at which books were and were not taught in post secondary literature classes. So, basically, if the professors were teaching Poe, he was in. But if they then one day decided he wasn't complicated enough to qualify as literary (or whatever), then they'd drop him from their syllabi and he'd get booted out of the cannon. Of course now, with the advent of subtext and cultural studies and so forth, you can teach a college course on Gilligan's Island. It's my impression that even among the academians who embrace this sort of thing pop culture is still treated very differently from literature and art... but still; it's possible that academia isn't quite the gate keeper it used to be with regards to the literary canon.
posted by Clay201 at 11:38 PM on February 21, 2005


I attend the University of Chicago and my former dorm has several ancient-looking volumes of the Great Books of the Western World still on the shelf. But even here in this rather conservative institution, the curriculum has broadened tremendously.
posted by mai at 12:22 AM on February 22, 2005


I constantly hear about the Western Literary Canon, but I can never find a copy of it.

Just as you hear a lot about the pantheon of Hollywood stars but you just can't locate that building?

The literary canon is what the literary big shots of the day say it is. If most English professors and critics agree that The Mill on the Floss is one of the greatest books in English, it's in the canon of English literature. If most of them later reject it, it's not in the canon anymore. There is, of course, no official list, and now that the big shots include so many professional iconoclasts, the icons are having a hard time of it and the canon has been spiked.

If you're looking for a list of books every well-read person must have read, you have to decide who to listen to. Bloom (see bright cold day's comment above) offers a fairly conservative, Shakespeare-centered list. (To Bloom, Shakespeare is the center of humanity.) Other lists include more women, more blacks, etc. When the Modern Library published its list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century*, others responded with alternative lists that better represented what they thought should be in the canon. There are a number of such lists here.

* The "reader's list" at the Modern Library makes me laugh -- all those Rand fans fighting all those Hubbard fans to vote their own god to the top of the list.
posted by pracowity at 12:33 AM on February 22, 2005


Sorry that I didn't arrive here sooner.

I attended St. John's College (which plays a very large role in all the links above). That school is only about "the canon".

The word "anthologized" gives me hives. These are a lot of works. Books. These (all together) are not something you'll get from a survey class.

Generally, and particularly at SJC, It includes narrative, like Homer and Shakespeare and Tolstoy; but it also includes Euclid's Elements, Newton's Principia, Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, Einstein's The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies and much more.

In this context, "canon" aims to be sort of compilation of the best of Western intellectual thought.

Now, as to the politics. Hmm.

There's two viewpoints, two primary ways in which people approach "the canon" (of those who favor it). The first is everything your progressive friends criticize it for being: dead white men; cultural chauvinism; a manifestation, the very bones, of Western patriarchal and racist oppression. In this context it very much is about exclusion; and those who hold it dear are conservative culture warriors like Bill Bennet and Lynne Cheney. The former President of St. John's (Pres. when I was there), a good buddy of those two, former Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and recent czar of "education" in Iraq, John Agresto, is an example of one of these people. I greatly dislike these people.

A subset of these are the Straussians. Leo Strauss, the intellectual father of the neocons, was involved in the great books program at Chicago. His view of these works included his belief that they are deeply esoteric. That they are coherent "between the lines", if you know how to read them. As such, Straussianism is another variety of the priestly academic class peddling what they suppose is the real truth no uninitiated could discover on their own. Really, that view of these books is a good predictor of the political philosophy which followed.

I very greatly dislike these people.

The other approach to these works (of those favorable) is that they're, well, really good books and thus worth reading. Have you read and appreciated Shakespeare? In doing so were you a cultural conservative championing your chauvinism? Me, neither.

You can guess which group I'm in.

Typically these days the conventional wisdom among leftists is that the latter group is, at best, stooges for the former. There is very little intellectual room these days for people who take these books seriously who are also left-of-center.

Now, contemporary literary theory, imported from Europe, does away with any claims of "greatness" and, really, better or worse, for that matter. In that context, these books can only represent the sociopolitical skeleton of their construction, existence, and reverence.

There's really no way for me to answer this argument as it begins from assumptions that I do not.

I tend to believe that are better and worse qualities of thought and, even more daringly, of art. For me, this list of books is a moderately reliable compilation of the stuff from the last 2400 years, in this part of the world, that is "better".

Strauss probably developed his esoterism because of the inconvenient fact that exoterically these books are, taken together, ideologically incoherent. Marx is represented in this list. So is Aristotle and Nietzche and Jefferson. The culture warriors like to tie everything up in a package and claim that all this stuff, all these different ideas, inexorably lead to the shining city on the hill which is America.

You can safely ignore these people. They're daft. Well, you can't safely ignore them because they're influential and dangerous.

Many would call my view on women and minority representation among these books "naive". That's because I simply believe that our sexist and racist society has given women and racial minorities very few opportunities to contribute. Those that did contribute were mostly, no doubt, suppressed. Indeed, I imagine that there are certainly some worthy works that are, essentially, suppressed to this day. So, with my naive belief in "excellence", I'm thrilled at any opportunity to add an "excellent" work by a woman or minority to that list. I don't think in the body of extent intellectual work from the last 2400 years there's much opportunity. But there is some.

Additionally, a common and understandable criticism if "the canon" is that it's in its very essence conservative. It's "past idealizing", say. In the worst form, it's thought to be basically the same thing as medieval scholars who believed that Aristotle and his peers had known everything there was to know, they were the final (ancient) authority.

Well, in my view, the canon is conservative only in the most literal definition of the word: it's conserving works of value from the past. Speaking only for myself, I find naive conservatism (utopian past worship) and naive progressivism (utopian future/change worship) to be silly. I think I can speak for many of my fellow johnnies when I say that we certainly do not have the willfully ignorant reverence for the past and these works such as, say, those medieval scholars and monks.

My particular interest is in the philosophy of science. I know from practical experience that my knowledge of the foundations and progression of western empricism, and direct aquaintance with these works in themselves, gives me a more accurate perspective on contemporary science than many scientists. Never undervalue foundational knowledge. Contemporary education is mostly technical and there's legimate need to provide a quick, superficial foundation and move on to stuff that's actually usefull. But it's worth going back, later when you have a chance, to seriously study the foundational works of your discipline.

The Chicago great books program (the "core", I believe it's called) and the people associated with it tend to be pretty culturally conservative. Chicago is a fantastic school, don't get me wrong. But the ideology of the "Great Books" tilts pretty strongly in the cultural conservative direction. Or at least it did. Thus your Straussians.

St. John's, though being a truly radical school that is exclusively and intensely about these "Great Books" has, oddly, mostly been liberal and to the left. This has been true of the student body for a long time. The faculty varies. I'm fairly representative of johnnies.

My existence, and that of my friends, I think should be considered some evidence for the position that there still is room on the left for study and respect of these works.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:17 AM on February 22, 2005 [1 favorite]


Now, contemporary literary theory, imported from Europe, does away with any claims of "greatness" and, really, better or worse, for that matter. In that context, these books can only represent the sociopolitical skeleton of their construction, existence, and reverence.

Good points all, EB. I would just object to your generalization of modern literary theory--only the most naive and blunt practitioners would say that "there's no such thing as 'better' or 'worse'". Granted, there are a _lot_ of those folks around, and they tend to grab all the attention, but as someone who majored in French literary theory at one of the bastions of deconstruction in the '80s, I did get exposed to a much more nuanced, and credible, position on "greatness".

Any good professor I ever had, or critic I've ever read, would say that there are clearly some books that are much, much better than others. They love the idea of quality literature, and their own favorite books, as much as anyone else in academia. They were all steeped in literature of the past, and many of them were dedicated experts on a specific genre of literature just because it fascinated them. (For example, one of my best, and insightful, professors on contemporary literary theory was also a devoted student of medieval French literature.)

To me, a credible post-modernist thinker would stress two points:

1) As you've clearly demonstrated, "greatness" is much too subjective and blurry a concept to really get a lot of useful traction. It changes from time to time, place to place, topic to topic, and person to person. Therefore, while it's fruitful subject for debate, it just not a very _productive_ one for breaking new ground--if you want to develop _new_ insights on the issue, the debate on which books are "good" isn't going to get you very far in the 20th century.

So, sure, to some degree, that's driven by intellectual pride, but we are talking about people who have staked their professional careers on creating new insights.

2) Even more importantly, though, when you look at the practical realities of how books have been accepted or rejected from any version of the canon, "greatness" has rarely been the overriding factor in _why_ the list really was what it was at any given point. The real reasons for that stemmed from exactly that "sociopolitical skeleton" you referred to, so if you're interested in why certain texts are or aren't in the canon, _that's_ what you really need to look at, not some blurry concept of "greatness".

In that sense, the literary canon really does parallel the development of the Christian canon, where the debate was--on the surface--about which texts were "truly inspired by God". In reality, there was a roiling, bare-knuckles political brawl going on for control of the nascent Christian church, and you can look at the debates over inclusion, and the specific texts that were picked, and learn an enormous amount about the underlying realities.

In the end, that's not to say that the church leaders involved in that debate didn't really believe in divine inspiration, or that it's not a legitimately important issue for people today--clearly, it was and is. In the same way, the "quality" of an important book, to the people who love or respect it, is a legitimate important factor, but post-modernists would argue that it's just the wrong place to look if you're trying to understand why a given text is or isn't accepted in the broader canon.
posted by LairBob at 4:36 AM on February 22, 2005


Well, my experience of these works is that they are higher quality. That is, mostly "great". I don't have a good definition of "great", I'm suspicious of it, but, as you say, pretty much everyone has an intuitive sense that there is "good" and "bad". Most of these books were damn good.

Now, similar to the point that scarabic made in the Googling meta thread, in an evaluative sense I can't know what's not on the "list". My intution tells me that there's a great many things not on the list that ought to be. But I think a majority of those things are no longer available. And, more to the point, I don't think that this being the case negates their relative value in comparison to the literature that is available.

What I think you were coming close to but probably would strongly disavow—what I was certainly getting at—is that these two different representations of the value of the canon are interdependent but loosely coupled. Providing one has a realistic sense of the limitations of the canon, certainly a sense of what it is not, then one can sort of safely naively accept it on the presumed intrinsic value basis and disregard its sociopolitics.

Or let me put this in an entirely different way but that reflects my core philosophy: it's simply not the case that there's one, best, context for comprehending and evaluating these works for all purposes. For a particular purpose, with a sufficient comprehension of that purpose, it is very useful to see these as the exceptionally thoughtful or insightful works of some extraordinary or otherwise unusually intelligent people.

In my view, the demand that everything be put into a particular sociopolitical context is as intellectually totalitarian as demanding that one context or work is privileged above all others. For me, claiming that the only worthwhile comprehension of Aristotle possible is one which is placed within the fullest context of his sociopolitical reality is as wrong-headed as claiming that one could comprehend Aristotle in all important ways without that sociopolitical context.

This is important to me, and all johnnies, because other than the historical context provided by the progression of the works in the "Program", there is no other sociopolitical context for these works at all within a St. John's education. A lot of people would argue that this makes the Program almost worthless. Or, worse, less than worthless. SJC is quite a bit more isolated pedagogically even than this, as the distinction between the Chicago folks and the SJC folks (and there was tremendous overlap between the two) is exemplified by the distinction between Straussian esotericism and the St. John's approach which is "Read this book. Now let's talk about it." I often tell the story of how Leo Strauss and Jacob Klein, best friends, differed. Strauss was at Chicago. Klein at SJC. (Strauss was a professor emeritus at SJC late in his life, however.) Strauss had "disciples". Klein didn't. At St. John's, professors aren't even called "professors". They are "merely" "tutors". They don't lecture.

Alan Bloom (Straussian) in "The Closing of the American Mind" took a thinly veiled swipe at St. John's when he derides an education in them without guidance as "making a cult of the Great Books". Which seems odd to me because a central feature of all cults is its charismatic leader who provides guidance to understanding the canon (and everything else).

To me, and johnnies (and others, presumably) like-minded with me, the "canon" is what it is. No more, no less. It's true that I've long sensed—while I was there but even moreso later—that the chief potential vice for a johnnie is not understanding the limitations of the canon nor best comprehending the proper context for its greatest utility. And without those two things, much (I think) of the good which is the abstract value of its intellectual worth is converted into the bad which is its cultural chauvinism and moral hubris.

On Preview, I realize that I've not really addressed what are, to you I think, the questions of central importance: how is it decided what is part of the canon and what is not; and how well does that correlate to intrinsic value? For my purposes, I don't need to know the answer to the first as long as I am reasonably certain that the answer to the second is "enough so that it's useful for my purposes which assume it".

I'm trying to get my head around something I intuitively recognize the existence of, but do not intuitively feel: that for many people, nothing is imaginably of any value unless they have a reasonably good answer to the first question. But ("ironically" in this context) for me that belief is needlessly, erroneously, reductive. There is, certainly, a universe of comprehension related to the "canon" that requires a substantial answer to that first question. But not for all possible comprehensions useful for any purpose. Some, many, don't require it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:47 AM on February 22, 2005


"...nor best comprehending the proper context for its greatest utility"

...should have ended with for a given purpose.

posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:58 AM on February 22, 2005


Totally understood, EB--I think the main difference between our core points is that you're looking at the concept of a canon from a personal level, and you're judging its "utility" by its application to your own thought.

That's totally legitimate, and how I incorporate the idea into my own life, but I was talking more about how the topic of canonical inclusion works on an institutional level--how the more straightforward question of "What constitutes a 'Great Book'?" is no longer a meaningfully productive line of academic investigation, in and of itself.

In the context of a "Great Books"-focused program, sure, it's an important debate, but it's important because a decision has been made to place it as a central issue. It inherits its utility from that choice, and it gets resolved because it needs to be resolved--the members of the community have to concede a common definition because the community can't operate the way they want it to if they don't. (That's not to say that there's not a healthy debate, but that there's something concrete to debate about.)

In most universities, though, the idea of the WLC isn't an operational one. There is no mechanism, or incentive, to establish an institutional canon, and so any arguments over what is or isn't "canonical" immediately devolve into the same tired, recycled and subjective arguments.

As a result, if you are interested in the canon as an academic topic, your attention is automatically drawn to the issues surrounding it--issues that lend themselves much more readily to a rigorous examination and debate. The "intellectual archeology" that Foucault championed, which focuses on real historical evidence over what was included, and why, is a much more fruitful avenue of investigation if you're an academic thinker, and raises questions that can be much more readily debated and refined.

So, even if any good post-modernist thinker has their own personal, ever-changing canon of books they love and respect--just like you and I do--they've decided that in an academic context, there's a lot more utility in looking at the power plays around the canon. By focusing on documentary evidence (when it's done well), it's an approach that is verifiable and debatable on a completely different level than whether or not a text is "great", and in an academic context, that's really important.
posted by LairBob at 6:33 AM on February 22, 2005


When the Modern Library published its list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century

Didn't a novel need to have a Modern Library edition available to be considered for that list? I've always viewed it with suspicion because of that.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:46 AM on February 22, 2005


"...the members of the community have to concede a common definition because the community can't operate the way they want it to if they don't. (That's not to say that there's not a healthy debate, but that there's something concrete to debate about.)"

That's very astute of you and, I'm guessing, a good definition of why SJC works in practice and continues even though it's always been split by the ideological divide seperating, say, me and Strauss. It's also pragmatic, which suits my personality very well. And it also explains how SJC (only the Santa Fe campus) offers a graduate degree in an "Eastern Studies" mirror of its regular program. This was hotly debated, and the cultural conservatives fought it tooth-and-nail. But a good portion of the faculty, especially in Santa Fe, are credentialed or otherwise well-versed in non-western works because, for them as for me, good is good and I really (not so) secretely wish the culture warriors would all kill each other off.

The existence of SJC and its curriculum requires that all the people with divergent interests in its putative subject matter agree to a variety of constraints. Many are practical. A good portion of the program is accepted relatively without question as part of its cultural inertia. Some are willing to work against that interia, where warranted, on long timeframes. Others fight battles at the margins. Almost everyone agrees that the universe of all possible useful or "important" knowledge is so vast that it can hardly be considered a sin to stake out a small territory or it, even if arbitrarily. You've got four intensive years. What are you going to do with them? Measured by one observer, not much. By another, a great deal.

Thanks for the good discussion. Your contribution has been excellent. Heh.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:02 AM on February 22, 2005


My pleasure. (Beside, you knew it was just a matter of time before two of the most voluble members here got engaged in an essay-length debate on something...)
posted by LairBob at 8:02 AM on February 22, 2005


Any version of the Catholic/Protestant Bible you buy is going to have the same collection of texts in it, and that's the canon.

That's not true. Catholics recognize books that Protestants don't.

More generally, I find the notion of a literary cannon belongs to a time when being well read was a far narrower thing. It had power because it was *the* definition. With the explosion of publishing and literacy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the related opening of the cultural field to all members of the culture, the canon became only a tiny sliver. Nowadays, being really into the canon as such is like belonging to the Society for Creative Anachonism: it puts you in touch with the historical roots of your culture, but at the same time is slightly irrelevant. That isn't to say that the works themselves possess no power; they do. But they have less and less to do with the immediate cultural landscape beyond the sort of "universal" reflection any good literary work possesses.

I think this also explains the intersity of culture war arguments. The pettier the stakes, the harder those invested fight.
posted by dame at 8:57 AM on February 22, 2005


Granted, dame--I wrote that, and realized after I posted that it wasn't true quite the way I wrote it. Regardless, within each of those religious communities, there is a commonly-accepted canon (as well as a different one for the Eastern Orthodox Church, I believe, etc.) Very often, in fact, different Christian sects have defined themselves precisely _by_ which version of the canon they accepted, more than anything else. (Not that that was Luther's primary issue, but still.)

Basically, it really underlines even more the subjectivity of how canons come to be defined, as well as the degree of influence that political and institutional circumstances have.
posted by LairBob at 9:08 AM on February 22, 2005


A very interesting discussion, in which I basically agree with everything LairBob has been saying, so I won't reiterate it in my own words. A few responses to EB:

There is very little intellectual room these days for people who take these books seriously who are also left-of-center.

I don't think this is true (see the NYRB and LRB for ongoing examples), and I'd love to know what you're basing it on. Obviously there are lots of annoying lefties who object to "dead white males," but that's not at all the same thing as saying there's "very little intellectual room" for anybody else.

I know from practical experience that my knowledge of the foundations and progression of western empricism, and direct aquaintance with these works in themselves, gives me a more accurate perspective on contemporary science than many scientists.

This is absurd on the face of it (unless by "more accurate perspective" you mean "perspective informed by direct aquaintance with the foundations and progression of western empricism," in which case it's circular reasoning), but it certainly explains the self-confident tone of your opinions on everything. I mean, in a sense, of course, you have a more accurate perspective on science than scientists just because you're not one, in the same way you have a more accurate perspective on China than the Chinese, but that's not a very interesting sense.

This is important to me, and all johnnies

Sheesh. Le St. John's, c'est moi!

the universe of all possible useful or "important" knowledge is so vast that it can hardly be considered a sin to stake out a small territory or it, even if arbitrarily

Now, here we come to the crux of the matter (as I see it). There's nothing wrong with the idea of a canon if it's approached in this spirit: we're staking out a chunk of the universe that's close to us, so we can get a handle on it. Then, if we're ambitious and curious, we can move on to other chunks, which are equally valid and important; life is too short to get through the entire universe, even superficially, but it's fun and enlightening to try, and it helps us understand other parts of the world.

But the italicized phrase is crucial. Most people do not accept, or even think about, it; they simply assume that the canon they grew up with is all that's important, and those heathens who don't know Plato and Aquinas and Shakespeare and Mill and the usual gang of Great Minds (and interpret them more or less as we do) are ipso facto lesser than we, and we have a right to push them around. This is where we get into the politics of the canon. Yes, there are a lot of idiots who out of the fullness of their political correctness cast scorn on the very idea of a canon, of one thing being better than another, but there are also people who try to point out that the works of Confucius or Buddha or Rumi are not any less important or interesting than those of Plato or the Biblical writers or Shakespeare, that the epics of Georgia or Mali are as powerful in their own ways as those of Greece and Rome, that every part of the world has its own canon and that you'd have to investigate them all to be able to make any pronouncements on the Best That Has Been Said in the entire history of the world, and life is too short, so a basic humility is required. But we humans have never been very good at humility.

On preview: dame has a good take on it.
posted by languagehat at 9:23 AM on February 22, 2005


Makes sense, LiarBob; I just wanted to make sure that someone who came across this later didn't get the wrong impression.

By the way, which bastion of deconstructionism did you attend?
posted by dame at 9:37 AM on February 22, 2005


"I don't think this is true (see the NYRB and LRB for ongoing examples), and I'd love to know what you're basing it on. Obviously there are lots of annoying lefties who object to "dead white males," but that's not at all the same thing as saying there's "very little intellectual room" for anybody else."

Write to Scott McLemee for his opinion. I correspond with him occasionally, I have his email address. He's written a great length on this and related topics. Don't take my word for it. But then, you're disinclined to anyway, right?

"This is absurd on the face of it..."

No it's not. It's not any more absurd than pointing out that a gardener is not a biologist. Just because scientists do science does not mean that they understand what they're doing very well. And, in fact, many or most don't. For example, on the one hand they are typically naive realists who assume and argue "the scientific method" dogmatically and simple-mindedly. But on the other hand, their own practice of science on a day-to-day basis certainly does not conform to "the scientific method", their day-to-day practice of it is a lot more like LairBob's cloistered decider of "Great Books" who claim to be apolitical but are anything but.

Also, as I said, expertise in the foundational aspects of many scientific disciplines is actually relatively low. That's because they're not philosophers of science, they don't need to recapitulate this work, they are perfectly capable of doing very good science at a high level without this competency. A problem, though, is that they don't realize they suffer from this lack of competency. However, oftentimes the very best in the field will go back to foundational problems.

At SJC, students do not read about all this science, they do quite a bit of it. Reading original sources, performing the experiments as they were performed, and moving progressively through the development of empiricism. Some very important insights become very obvious about the grand project that is empiricism that are obscured by the superficial gloss on foundational and developmental matters that is typical of contemporary science educations.

"...as powerful in their own ways as those of Greece and Rome, that every part of the world has its own canon and that you'd have to investigate them all to be able to make any pronouncements on the Best That Has Been Said in the entire history of the world, and life is too short, so a basic humility is required..."

I'm sure I said almost exactly that, several times in different forms so I don't see the justification for the somewhat contentious way you asserted something that everyone, as far as I can tell, agrees with here. That you seem to have concluded, despite my repeated explicit contrary assertions, that I somehow must lie on the opposite side of this spectrum than you underscores why that first quoted assertion of mine in this comment is the case.

Dame wrote: "More generally, I find the notion of a literary cannon belongs to a time when being well read was a far narrower thing."

...I think is quite untrue and demonstrates the ever-present hubris of contemporary thought. Long, long ago was the universe of the best of intellectualism and literacy opened beyond the works one person could read in a lifetime. This is certainly much more true today but, on an individual functional basis, people today are no more "widely read", "informed", or "right" than they've been for a very long time.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:01 AM on February 22, 2005


By the way, which bastion of deconstructionism did you attend?

Yale, class of '87--right in the heyday of the "European invasion".

I actually steered way clear of all those rock stars like DeMan and Bloom in the comp lit department--they were much more like cartoon parodies EB was talking about. There was a whole group of really, really smart, young folks in the French department who had studied the stuff over there, and had a much more credible and nuanced take on things than the straw-man theory it's become here in the US since.

posted by LairBob at 10:08 AM on February 22, 2005


For reference, LiteraryCritic has several of the lists mentioned here online. They have Bloom's list, which I'm slowly reading my way through. I'm only up to Petrarch so far.
posted by turbodog at 10:30 AM on February 22, 2005


Long, long ago was the universe of the best of intellectualism and literacy opened beyond the works one person could read in a lifetime. This is certainly much more true today but, on an individual functional basis, people today are no more "widely read", "informed", or "right" than they've been for a very long time.

Are you on drugs? I didn't say people are more widely or better read now than they once were. In fact, I said nearly the opposite: to be well read in general basically doesn't mean anything anymore. This is only partially a function of the number of books available. More, it is a result of a variety of cultural discourses having roughly equal standing. That is, when being well-read meant having a foundation in the thoughts of those dreaded dead white males, then the notion of a canon had a point. The works the canon comprises can still be worth reading, depending on your goal, but The Canon is at best a historical curiosity and at worst a bludgeon for those who pine for the good old days.

To say it another way, there are many canons and therefore none.

LH: "I don't think this is true (see the NYRB and LRB for ongoing examples), and I'd love to know what you're basing it on. Obviously there are lots of annoying lefties who object to "dead white males," but that's not at all the same thing as saying there's "very little intellectual room" for anybody else."

EB: "Write to Scott McLemee for his opinion. I correspond with him occasionally, I have his email address. He's written a great length on this and related topics. Don't take my word for it. But then, you're disinclined to anyway, right?"


Scott McLemee is one person, and you liking and agreeing with him doesn't make him any more correct. If you think his argument is so compelling, then distill it for us. Otherwise, just pointing out that LH thinks you're full of it makes it seem like you aren't sure of your point.

As far as space in leftist intellectualism goes, there is plenty of room for having a basis in the works that traditionally made up the canon if you use that to make relevant points. If you just want to sit around and do close readings on those works, then no there isn't so much interest in that little world. But there is room.

LiarBob: Cool. I did semiotics and literary theory at Brown in the late-nineties, so I was wondering if you had preceded me there. It was fun, but I was slightly disturbed by those who just sucked everything up as The Truth. I preferred it as an exercise in looking at texts from as many viewpoints as possible.
posted by dame at 10:36 AM on February 22, 2005


Long, long ago was the universe of the best of intellectualism and literacy opened beyond the works one person could read in a lifetime.

Well, in purely practical terms, one can't really argue with that point--no one's ever really lived at time when they could really know "everything"...even if you go back to when there were very few _books_, there was still all kinds of oral traditions, etc., etc., that no single person could have mastered in a single lifetime.

That point notwithstanding, though, I think that the intellectual conceit that one could "know everything important that there is to know" only died relatively recently in Western culture. As an example, I can't find a reference off-hand, but I've read more than one allusion to Goethe as "the last man who could know everything there was to know". (I'll keep looking--it may be an apocryphal story, but I know I've seen it referred to more than once.)

If anything, I think the issue highlights an arrogant thread of _historical_ thought--certainly, as late as the 19th century, there were intellectual elites who believed that they had studied everything important, and mastered all the subjects that were relevant to human knowledge. Up until the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, that was pretty much the _predominant_ attitude, at least within what passed for "academia", like the ancient Sorbonne, and was probably the single largest factor in the intellectual stagnation through that whole stretch of the Middle Ages.

In that sense, the concept of a "canon" was actually a tool to reinforce that sense of self-satisfaction--by limiting the set of "important texts" to books, most of them in Latin or Greek, the pseudo-intelligentsia was able to establish a manageable set of texts that you not only had to be able to read to access, but you had to read Latin and/or Greek. Once you crossed that threshold, though, the set of things that you really had to master was relatively small.

I'm not trying to say that it's your perspective _at all_, or that it was in any way a good thing--just that an element of that intellectual arrogance persisted until relatively recent times, historically. Later, you could argue that it transmuted more to confidence, maybe, than arrogance, as people still assumed that _humankind_ would eventually learn everything there is to know, even if it became more of a stretch to claim any single person could.

More to the point, though, many people (including me) would argue that one of the major defining intellectual characteristics of "modernity" is _precisely_ that new element of forced humility. In other words, that the volume of what is obviously "essential" got so large that Western intellectuals had to abandon the central pretense that--individually or collectively--we could ever know everything that there is to know.

In that sense, the twentieth-century basically saw the acceptance of a Sisyphean model for human thought--not in a defeatist or negative sense, but in Camus' sense of proudly striving without any illusions. That systemic shift cuts a huge swath through the history and character of modern science, philosophy and literature. So while, yes, I agree with the technical point you're making, I don't think that most intellectual elites--especially the run-of-the-mill academics, not the intellectual giants we still remember--would have agreed with you until relatively recently, and I think that's a really important distinction.
posted by LairBob at 10:56 AM on February 22, 2005


"In that sense, the twentieth-century basically saw the acceptance of a Sisyphean model for human thought--not in a defeatist or negative sense, but in Camus' sense of proudly striving without any illusions. That systemic shift cuts a huge swath through the history and character of modern science, philosophy and literature. So while, yes, I agree with the technical point you're making, I don't think that most intellectual elites--especially the run-of-the-mill academics, not the intellectual giants we still remember--would have agreed with you until relatively recently, and I think that's a really important distinction."

I agree completely, wholeheartedly.

Dame asks:

"I didn't say people are more widely or better read now than they once were. In fact, I said nearly the opposite: to be well read in general basically doesn't mean anything anymore."

...and my intent wasn't to argue against the idea that people are more widely or better read now, but that they never were as much as they thought they were. I thought, perhaps wrongly, that Dame was making a specific counter-assertion: that in the past it was possible to "know everything" in the sense that is not possible today.

This by way of making a larger counterpoint to hers: if this is the case, and I think it is, then if the canon had value then, there's no reason to think it doesn't have similar value today.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:35 AM on February 22, 2005


If you acknowledge that there is a difference between "what you like" and "what is good" then eventually we get down to the brass tacks of what we are going to put on the "what is good" list, and that's the canon.

If you think that "what you like" = "what is good" then your contribution to society will not involve scholarship. Try for something in art criticism or perhaps advertising.

Anyone who reads everything that anyone suggests will eventually begin to create two piles. The first pile is what they love. They second pile is made up of original voices (the canon). If you don't find this true in your experience, then keep reading, you'll get there.

"When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food." —Desiderius Erasmus

(LairBob mistakes conceit for a deep love, reverence for and dedication to books... which is sad.)
posted by ewkpates at 11:39 AM on February 22, 2005


LairBob mistakes conceit for a deep love, reverence for and dedication to books... which is sad.

???
posted by LairBob at 11:44 AM on February 22, 2005


I think, ewkpates, that your ciriticism is valid when aimed at the right target...but that LairBob isn't that target.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:56 AM on February 22, 2005


"Are you on drugs?"

As a matter of fact, yes. Opiates. Does it show?

posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:58 AM on February 22, 2005


That you seem to have concluded, despite my repeated explicit contrary assertions, that I somehow must lie on the opposite side of this spectrum than you

EB, you're way too touchy. I didn't conclude any such thing; I was using your comment as a springboard to agree with you and contribute to the discussion.
posted by languagehat at 12:06 PM on February 22, 2005


Really? There seemed to be a snarky, very dismissive tone in one of those paragraphs.

But I'm on opiates. That's going to be my catch-all excuse from now on.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:26 PM on February 22, 2005


"That point notwithstanding, though, I think that the intellectual conceit that one could "know everything important that there is to know" only died relatively recently in Western culture." - M. LairBob

It isn't conceit or arrogance to say, after a long love affair with the history of Western Philosophy, that particular works stand out from the rest, inspire the rest, and that these are the essence of the body of work... these are the canon. To identify the canon, one need not know everything... but just enough Western philosophy to encompass the whole...
posted by ewkpates at 1:01 PM on February 22, 2005


if this is the case, and I think it is, then if the canon had value then, there's no reason to think it doesn't have similar value today.

Well, no, there is, and you put your finger on it yourself: "they never were [as well read] as much as they thought they were." (My emphasis.) The idea of a cannon had value because people thought knowing a specific canon, aka the Canon (which was generally digestible by a single person over a full lifetime), was the definition of being well read.

To put it in LiarBob's words, "I don't think that most intellectual elites . . . would have agreed with you until relatively recently, and I think that's a really important distinction."

Opiates. Does it show?
Yes, but saying how would be counter the spirit of AskMe.

posted by dame at 1:14 PM on February 22, 2005


It isn't conceit or arrogance to say...

Well, first of all, I meant "conceit" as in "a false presumption" or "a self-deceit", not as in "arrogance"--I can see how you would take it differently, given the subject, but I didn't intend the phrase to make the point you read.

More broadly, though, I still don't see how either reading of that point somehow implies that I'm somehow discounting a love of books. Not only did I already grant the point that "one can have one's own personal canon of treasured books"--several times--but the point I _was_ making had to with a broad development in Western thought. I'm really having trouble connecting my assertion that "people generally don't assume we can know everything any more" to the point you're trying to criticize me on. (Not to mention the fact that I've been a voracious reader since I was five, and actually chose to major in literature just so I could read a lot more.)

I really think that my first point sums up the overall situation here--I think you've read a whole different argument into the (admittedly convoluted) point I was trying to make.
posted by LairBob at 1:27 PM on February 22, 2005


Lairbob said:

"If anything, I think the issue highlights an arrogant thread of _historical_ thought--certainly, as late as the 19th century, there were intellectual elites who believed that they had studied everything important, and mastered all the subjects that were relevant to human knowledge. Up until the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, that was pretty much the _predominant_ attitude, at least within what passed for "academia", like the ancient Sorbonne, and was probably the single largest factor in the intellectual stagnation through that whole stretch of the Middle Ages.

In that sense, the concept of a "canon" was actually a tool to reinforce that sense of self-satisfaction--by limiting the set of "important texts" to books, most of them in Latin or Greek, the pseudo-intelligentsia was able to establish a manageable set of texts that you not only had to be able to read to access, but you had to read Latin and/or Greek. Once you crossed that threshold, though, the set of things that you really had to master was relatively small."

This is an entertainingly anachronistic and wildly ill-informed analysis. Is it really your contention that the nebulous and ill-defined canon exists simply to fluff up the stuffy old academics of a bygone age? Could you name some of these people who have such wide reaching trans-historic power? The canon and its "establishment" have very little to do with some bogeyman "pseudo-intellegentsia" or its being "a tool" for the "self-satisfaction" of its members and very much to do with a) historical accident, and b) the necessities of creating and sustaining aristocracy.

I would like to know more about these "intellectual elites" and "pseudo-intellegentsia you describe. I would suggest that any scholar or intellectual between the years 1400 and 1900 who claimed earnestly to have "learned everything" would have been the laughing stock of all europe. His name would still be remembered today as a synonym for arrogance and foolishness. All the pre-modern scholars that I can think of seem to have been simultaneously extremely learned by our standards and extremely hungry to acquire more knowledge. Maybe you can show me someplace where someone like Erasmus or Isaac Casaubon said "finished!" and vowed to spend the rest of his life in dimwitted lethargy. What little I know about the renaissance and the enlightenment gave me the impression that the goal (in as much as disparate historical forces can have one) of these two "movements" was not for any one man to know everything, so much as for men to begin to systematically examine themselves and the world around them in ways that had not been done since the rise of christendom.

I would suggest that the "intellectual stagnation of the middle ages," if there was such a thing (Ever heard of Alcuin? Aquinas? Anselm? Abelard? and that is just the A's), had very little to do with those loathsome academics you despise and very much to do with powerful institutions like the Church and the Myriad monarchies combined with the dispersal of valuable intellectual commodities (i.e., books) over a vast geographical area. The rise of a merchant class and the decline in papal power helped overcome these problems for European intellectuals. The problem in the middle ages was, for the most part, simultaneously the fragmentation of knowledge throughout the abbeys of Europe and the centralization of economic, political and religious power in the hands of a very few men.

The rediscovery of Greek is an excellent example of political and economic forces (the new merchant class) conspiring with intellectual curiosity to increase the scope of human knowledge and make the world better. Prior to the 15th century the Ancient Greek language was all but unknown in Europe; the fall of byzantium and the dispersal of its libraries combined with increased amounts of privately held capital and increased interest in secular matters to bring about the reintroduction of valuable lost knowledge. Along with this came an enormous wave of translation from Greek into Latin and the vernacular languages (btw, the first translations of most Greek works into the vernacular languages are actually translations of the Latin translations of those works). Within 200 years Greek was considered a necessary prerequisite not just for scholars, but for all aristocrats as well as for those hoping to improve their class standing. But the ideas of Cicero, Plato, Aristotle and others did more than just serve a class of idle but learned aristocrats; those ideas led directly to tangible improvements in the quality of human life (e.g. the U.S. constitution, modern science, the modern university, democracy, etc.).

If you have any idea how many languages were spoken in Europe prior to the modern era and its various government imposed standardizations you must realize that Latin as a near universal language of the literate, rather than being the arbitrary fiefdom of a handful of resentful scholars (since when did academics have any real power anyway?), was the very vehicle that allowed for multiculturalism of an early and fledgling sort to flourish in the first place. A universal language provided the hope of universal knowledge. This was not simply a eurocentric notion either, for by the end of the seventeenth century there were Latin to Arabic dictionaries, and by the end of the eighteenth century English scholars were systematically studying Sanskrit. Obviously, much of this new knowledge was the fruit of evils like colonialism, economic exploitation, and slavery; but the knowledge that came incidentally from those evils seems to provide some hope for eventually escaping them.

None of this, I think, is the result of an arrogant world view, but of an empowering one. The point was never to know everything, but to seek to know as much as possible. In light of church domination of the previous thousand years of intellectual life this might also be called liberation.

Your reference to Camus is completely backwards. Prior to our "enlightened" time, scholars sought out new sources of knowledge throughout the world at great risk to their persons and their fortunes hunting far and wide for new (i.e., lost) manuscripts from earlier times. They did this so that they could discover as much of the best of what had been thought and written as possible. By contrast the modern intellectuals (I am not talking about academics unless they are famous and francophile), certain of their own importance and bent on furthering their careers and their auras think it wise to ruminate on the fundamental difficulties of ever knowing anything. What is Sisyphean about that? (Btw, modern intellectuals are 100% more likely to die by foolishly crashing their sports cars than are 17th century latinists). The intellectual founders of the enlightenment believed that human knowledge could bring about human happiness. Perhaps to God's eyes this is arrogance, but to mine it seems like magnanimity and optimism. If we do live in a Sisyphean age (and that is, as you assert, a good thing?) then we must consider the intellectuals who preceded us to have been Promethean.

(Personally, I think we live in a fallen, narcissistic and nihilistic age, and I find little to hope for in the notion of carving some simulacrum of meaning our of the cliff of meaningless.)

All that aside, I would like to historicize for a bit about the original question. The notion of a canon as anything more than a syllobus, which is originally, historically what it was, is a very recent development. The first "canons" were nothing more than the syllabi of ancient educators. As such they were little more than a promissory note from teacher to parent that the student entrusted to a teacher's care would come a way with the requisite knowledge of letters to take part in public life and to be a successful member of the aristocracy. The canon started off as a jumping off point for a life of activity and, if one was so inclined, further study. Only in the last hundred and fifty years or so has it become the monolithic and moribund institution that it is today. I would imagine that for John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, thinkers like Cicero, Plato, and especially Aristotle were as intellectually vital and relevant as Hobbes, Locke, or Paine. The canon was not some abstract notion imposed from on high or from some murky past, but a reading list dictated by the practical needs and interests of aristocrats. I would guess that the modern perception of the canon as a set of finely bound and self-contained books perched innocuously on a bookshelf has as much to do with enyclopedia manufacturers and salesman meeting the demands and insecurities of an upwardly mobile populace as it does with Leo Strauss (EB, couldn't you do a better job of differentiating between Strauss and the Straussians?) and the Johnnies. The farther we move from a literate, conservative culture that is interested as much in its own past and future development to a culture of novelty and easy gratification the more alien and abstract the notion of a canon becomes.

On preview, arrogance and self-deceit are the same thing.
posted by mokujin at 1:56 PM on February 22, 2005


The intellectual founders of the enlightenment believed that human knowledge could bring about human happiness. Perhaps to God's eyes this is arrogance, but to mine it seems like magnanimity and optimism.

Or hubris, which is what my postmodern education suggested.

I find little to hope for in the notion of carving some simulacrum of meaning our of the cliff of meaningless

And therein lies your passion for the point of view you've expressed. Someone else might find that notion incredibly comforting, as she would see in it the possibilty for a greater understanding of the nature of truths and more functional meanings. That is, it is possible for that notion to be as hopeful as you find enlightenment thought.

The canon was not some abstract notion imposed from on high or from some murky past, but a reading list dictated by the practical needs and interests of aristocrats.

And over time it calcified into an abstract notion from some murky past, a particularly exclusionary one. Now if you are part of the group for which it was created or you can project yourself into feeling part of that group, its exclusionary nature can seem irrelevant. However (and I would say fortunately), that group is no longer the uncontested keeper of power, and others, with their own canons, may contest it and do reduce its power by rendering it one among many. You don't have to like it, but unless you are Superman, you cannot reverse time so that is no longer the case. You can rage against change and claim that is is only the result of moral degradation.

The farther we move from a literate, conservative culture that is interested as much in its own past and future development to a culture of novelty and easy gratification the more alien and abstract the notion of a canon becomes.

Yep, just like that.
posted by dame at 2:37 PM on February 22, 2005


Is it really your contention that the nebulous and ill-defined canon exists simply to fluff up the stuffy old academics of a bygone age?

No. Just no. I didn't make any flat assertion of the kind--I took care to phrase my actual point pretty carefully, and you easily could have read it as a specific assertion about a very specific group and type of person, but you didn't.

To be honest, I had started to write up more detailed responses, since I did think you made some legitimate and interesting points along the way, but they all ended up circling around the same point--even if I'd concede or at least debate some of your points, you've aggressively re-characterized just about every statement of mine in the most exaggerated sense possible anyone _could_ have meant something like that, and simultaneously ignored just about every qualification I _did_ take the time and space to cram in.

So fine--you got me. I didn't perfectly qualify everything I wrote so as to prevent it from being taken wrongly. I thought I was writing in an online forum where people engage in a relatively high-level intellectual debate, and where people account for that context to make _some_ effort to listen to each other gracefully and treat each other as intelligent adults. Clearly, you've proven me wrong--my mistake.
posted by LairBob at 2:39 PM on February 22, 2005


mokujin, when I started scrolling down, and down, and down, I naturally assumed that the comment was by Ethereal Bligh. But when I actually read it, my mistake was clear. EB, even on opiates, is a model of logical discussion, and every one of his multitudinous paragraphs is honestly addressing a point he thinks someone is making (even if he's occasionally mistaken). You seem to specialize in outrage, mischaracterization, and personal affront. If you're going to take that tack, could you at least keep it short?

What little I know about the renaissance and the enlightenment gave me the impression...

Little indeed. You seem to have taken a survey course and regurgitated your notes. Your ideas of what "scholars" were like in premodern times are simplistic, and your caricatures of more nuanced positions ("Maybe you can show me someplace where someone like Erasmus or Isaac Casaubon said 'finished!' and vowed to spend the rest of his life in dimwitted lethargy") are insulting. You might want to read Frances Yates' The Art of Memory to get a sense of what actual Renaissance scholars were like and the kinds of things they thought important.

arrogance and self-deceit are the same thing

No, actually they're not. Arrogance is the quality of being insolent, overbearing, haughty. It has nothing to do with self-deceit, although some people do exhibit both qualities.
posted by languagehat at 3:14 PM on February 22, 2005


Languagehat,

Well you would be the expert on that. I love it when metafilter's most outspoken linguistic descriptivist dictates once and for all what a word can and cannot mean. Shouldn't the fact that lairbob used the words as loose synonyms tell us something? My own thought in calling arrogance and self-deceit the same was that arrogance is one manifestation of thinking that you are something that you are not, and self-deceit is the very act of thinking that you are something that you are not. I have not consulted Webster's on this, and so I am being purely descriptive in that assertion. I am sure that you would agree that there is no such thing as a perfect synonym, and I wasn't trying to say that the two concepts are equal, just that in this particular argument they are two ways of looking at the same behavior, or two aspects of the same phenomenon. The difference, as I see it, is in whether it is the internal or the external aspect that is emphasized. Taking a slightly different tact, I might say that all arrogance is self-deceit, but not all self-deceit takes the form of arrogance, or something like that.

I really liked this suggestion of yours that I was referring to some course notes as I typed this. If I were only that organized and responsible! I can assure you that I am not working from notes, and what is more I haven't even taken a course on this subject matter in my whole life! I was not being disingenuous when I said that I don't know all that much about renaissance intellectual history. That said, I read Scribes and Scholars for a graduate seminar about five years ago and have picked it up a few times since; I also read the Cambridge Intro to Textual Criticism which touched on some of these people. Since then, most of my knowledge of Bentley and Scaliger and the rest has come secondarily from seeing their names in the introductions, textual histories, and ap crits of various modern commentaries on classical works. I have also read some of the entries for such people from the 1911 Britannica and various journal articles that made mention of them. I once read Housman's introduction to his own edition of Manilius, which is, as I remember it, an anti-Bentley pill-popping hate attack. So I have read those things and picked up some other stuff here and there about the history of renaissance and enlightenment scholarship. I find this stuff all very interesting and if I come across the book you suggest at a used book store I will not hesitate to buy it. But this area is not my specialty and I never claimed it was. Nor do I have an entirely rosy picture of humanist scholars; I was simply countering the suggestion that they were a bunch of self-glorifying know-nothings. Does my lack of complete knowledge on this subject mean that I can't make mention of what I do know?

I get angry when people attack the learning and scholarship of previous eras on what I consider to be specious grounds. I have a very strong dislike for cultural and other relativisms. I get angry when people dismiss a few millenia of knowledge because it is no longer fashionable. I take issue vehemently with the notion that the scholars who are responsible for reviving the literary tradition in the west were motivated by nothing more than "self-satisfaction" or self interest, and that mastering the corpus of knowledge up to say 1800 was easily done. I especially disagree when anyone suggests without persuasive evidence that we have reached some precious point of understanding from which to look back in pity and disgust upon bygone eras while celebrating our own glorious present. It was against my perception of those ideas in lairbob's comments that I made my post.

Besides all that, I wanted to point out that the notion of canon has of late been willfully misconstrued for ideological reasons. What was originally viewed as a guide and a point of entry to a life of learning, has very recently come to be seen rather simplistically as a reified vehicle of oppression. You may see this as simply a shift in meaning, but I see it as a marketing strategy for publishers that has grown into an irrational attack on knowledge and learning by lazy and ideologically motivated scholars and intellectuals. I have a hard time stomaching the frequent appropriations and misapplications of the works and thought of people I consider to be important and significant thinkers (e.g. Foucault, Marx, Bourdieu, etc.) for political and personal gain. I don't think that attempting to acquire valuable and significant intellectual knowledge (i.e., the canon) is simply some monolithic institution of logocentric power, but one of the potential means by which people can acquire power and give meaning to their own lives.


Lairbob,

I owe you an apology. I read your earlier comments this morning . Later, when I returned to this post I took serious issue with some of the things I read in your last comment up to that point. I was tired and stupid and grumpy from hunger, and rather than rereading the whole post I simply responded to your most recent comment. That was lazy and unfair of me. I still stand by the substantial things I said in response to those last comments of yours, but I would say them differently if given the chance. It is obvious from your earlier posts that your position is far more nuanced and intelligent than I gave you credit for. That said, please keep in mind that by entering into the discussion, no matter how snide or snarky, I am considering your position to be one worthy of argument and discussion rather than dismissal or silence.

Dame,

I don't remember referring to morality once. You seem to have mistaken me for a conservative simply because I have pointed out that our culture is growing less conservative and more interested in novelty and fluff, and because I think that some things are potentially better than others; the former is an objective truth, and the latter is only my opinion. My dislike for our culture stems from my own leftwing beliefs in such quaint notions as reason, education, and liberty. Politically I am generally in accord and agreement with all the correct-thinking nabobs at Counterpunch, the Baffler, and the Nation. And when I say that the culture is a certain way (i.e., narcissistic, nihilistic, materialistic, etc.) I am including myself in that assessment. I am as narcissistic, nihilistic and materialistic as anyone I know; I have never denied that except in places where it was already perversely obvious anyway, like law school applications.

I struggle daily with nihilism and meaninglessness on a personal level; I thought that was fairly obvious from the tenor of my comments. I do not find comfort in meaninglessness, nor do I see how anyone else could. This is an objective truth. Perhaps someone can take pride (certain atheist) in or find meaning in meaninglessness (existentialists) or even embrace (Buddhists) it, but I have never heard of anyone who has found comfort or solace in meaninglessness. I think that meaninglessness and comfort are by their nature completely antithetical. For myself, I occasionally find both meaning and comfort in books of all sorts, whether canonical or not. More often, though, it is in the books that people have been talking about for a very long time, or heatedly for a shorter time; that is, it is in the works that have mattered to others that I find the most meaning and the most comfort. I think that the move away from the implicit and understood canon of a few hundred years ago to the ossified Modern Library or Harold Bloom canon has very little to do with a move toward a broader and more open literacy, as you have suggested, and a great deal to do with the rapid expansion of disposable consumer culture. That is just my pessimistic point of view. Perhaps I have been blinded by the heartbreak of phallo-logo-centrism. It wouldn't be the first time.
posted by mokujin at 9:09 PM on February 22, 2005


Sorry this is so long, but the thread is pretty over, so I hope it's okay.

Mokujin: You were obvioulsy cranky earlier and clearly care about this, so I slightly revise my assumptions of you turdiness. That said, I take vehement exception to everything you wrote, except your general left-wingishness.

I don't remember referring to morality once. You seem to have mistaken me for a conservative simply because I have pointed out that our culture is growing less conservative and more interested in novelty and fluff. . . .

You describe the "decline" of current culture in morally loaded terms. Even if you apply those terms to yourself, it doesn't undo the moral force of your desciptions. Further, proclaiming that there was once a good old time and current culture is inferior to that time in an inherently conservative claim. You may not be a conservative in the Republican sense, but that claim is, by definition, conservative.

I do not find comfort in meaninglessness, nor do I see how anyone else could. This is an objective truth.

That is not a objective truth. It is an opinion. I do find comfort in meaninglessness. The fundamental meaninglessness of life means that what I choose to do and what I choose to make of myself is mine. If you concentrate too much on meaningless as void, then yes, meaninglessness can be terrifying; looked at as an opportunity, meaningless is wonderful though. What greater task than constructing one's own meaning, understanding how others have constructed theirs, working to help others construct a meaning they too can be proud of? (Yes, you do have to deal with the meanings through which others interpret you, but that is a kettle of fish I haven't the space to boil here. If you want to know more, email me.) Existentialism isn't simply about "finding meaning in meaninglessness"; that doesn't make any sense. The point is to acknowledge the fundamental meaninglessness--inessentiality--of humanity and then to understand why go on and how. I know it can be something to struggle with, but dude, on this side its fucking awesome!

More seriously, you say, "It is in the works that have mattered to others that I find the most meaning and the most comfort." Here again, I think you miss the influence of being well-reflected by the (still though not quite as) dominant culture. I have found the most personal comfort in works that certainly aren't topping anyone's canon, and are probably considered minor when they are considered at all--de Beauvoir's Les Belles Images and the works of Natalia Ginzburg, for example, are far greater influences on my meaning contruction project than anything issuing forth from Shakespeare, Dante, Joyce, or Eliot (though I do enjoy the first two).

I am not the only person like me; this country is full of us. To assume that the list of books that appeal to you and others like you is the universal list (or, contrawise, that the list of universal books ought to reflect meaning and give comfort to us other sorts) is arrogant.

Which leads me to this: I think that the move away from the implicit and understood canon of a few hundred years ago to the ossified Modern Library or Harold Bloom canon has very little to do with a move toward a broader and more open literacy, as you have suggested, and a great deal to do with the rapid expansion of disposable consumer culture.

I think that the ossification of the canon has only to do with time. I think its downgrading as a notion has to do with both its ossification and a more open literacy. By a more open literacy, of course, I mean the recognition of a greater set of discourses as equally possible of being important by those generally interested in this sort of thing. I would say that this is a result of a more people being literate not because more individuals read than did a hundred years ago, but that literacy is more accessible to a greater number of groups, thereby increasing the diversity of the group to which this kind of shit matters.

People who once read because TV didn't exist and they needed to entertain themselves don't read now, it's true. But even when they read they didn't care in this way.

Last, I wanted to address this: I don't think that attempting to acquire valuable and significant intellectual knowledge (i.e., the canon) is simply some monolithic institution of logocentric power, but one of the potential means by which people can acquire power and give meaning to their own lives.

In some ways I am sympathetic to point of view. I have had many arguments with my leftist pals about how anti-intellectualism based on lack of education is better addressed by making people feel equipped to learn than by dumbing things down. The problem is the Canon is "a monolithic institution of logocentric power." A diversity of canons where each admits to staking out a little piece of the knowledge terrain would not be. But a single canon that claims its own privileged universalism is a monolithic institution of some sort of power.
posted by dame at 10:45 PM on February 22, 2005


"The problem is the Canon is 'a monolithic institution of logocentric power.' A diversity of canons where each admits to staking out a little piece of the knowledge terrain would not be."

That's your defiition of "Canon", not mine.

This thread demonstrates the ideological divide, and strawmen, and general cuture warrior-ness of this topic. Dame and mokujin are at opposite ends of an ideological spectrum (though, apparently, both politically left-of center).

Meanwhile, me, LairBob, and languagehat are not culture warriors. To various degrees, I think we're all comfortable with the idea that some books are better than others; even an incomplete attempt to closely read all the "better" books in a given tradition it probably worthwhile; that the Western/European "Canon" insofar as it has in the past (and the present) been intellectually totaritarian and culturally chauvinistic is "bad" and, perhaps (as I think) a perverse misuse of it. LairBob and me are probably at opposite ends of this less-ideological spectrum; languagehat I'm not sure of.

I map that out for a reason. The ideological divide so clearly, passionately, and arrogantly represented by the cultural warriors represents a valid philosophical difference of opinion that most of us grapple with.

What's offensive and arrogant of the culture warriors, demonstraed both by Dame and mokujin, is that each stakes out an absolutist position (whether or not they consider themselves relativists) that denies that there is a) a valid intellectual position in this matter that is not that of one of the two culture warriors (it's a "if your not for us, you're against us" mentality) and b) of course, that they're right and everyone else is foolishly wrong.

Tellingly, this is just another recapitulation of the same essential philosphical debate that is seen over and over again in...the western canon (as, I'm sure, almost everywhere else).

These are a bunch of really good books written in the west over the last 2400 years. They're very much worth reading. They are not the only things very much worth reading.

Most johnnies I know are not culture warriors and come from SJC with an awakened awareness that there is a universe of great books and intellectual discovery out there and that what they've done up to that point is a small beginning, not an end. How is it, after reading all these books, that a good number of people will come away with this attitude and not the culturally chauvinist, intellectually totalitarian attitude? Because, in my strong opinion, a great many of these books attack the latter attitude and without an authority, an elder, a "professor" to hand-wave this dissent away, it makes a strong impression. YMMV.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:25 AM on February 23, 2005


Dame,

As I tried to point out in both my posts, I don't worship the canon, nor do I even believe that such a thing exists in any meaningful way except as a marketing device. I think the canon is a recent historical creation, a sort of strawman, that functions mostly to sell cultural studies books and right wing counter-screeds.

My understanding of existentialism as a philosophical idea is that the point of meaninglessness is inceptive: from the moment we take our first breath or speak our first word we cannot help but create meaning and have meaning imposed upon us. As adults when we struggle with meaninglessness, a divorce, a friend's suicide, an arbitrary and ill-advised war, it is, except to a sociopath, a source of anxiety and discomfort. I stand by my statement of objective truth. Is that arrogant? I don't really think that it is arrogant to say that the things that give me pleasure and comfort might give comfort to others. I am not forcing anyone to read a book at the point of a gun; rather, I am saying that I have a shared humanity with others and that certain things have repeatable, reproducible results. What is more, I don't think that the answer to present problems lies in fragmentation into a world of monadic souls each hungrily creating their own meaning out of the void, but in attempting to create a consensual and shared culture of autonomous individuals.

I don't think that the culture warriors of the left are any more rational than the culture warriors on the right. The latter worship the present in the hope of distracting the populace from actual economic and political facts; the former seem, to me at least, to be attacking the cultural symptoms of oppression, rather than the economic and political causes of it. The reason that there are still sweatshops, conflict diamonds, racial cleansing and slavery isn't because of the infamous "dead white men." These evils are the result of deeply entrenched historical forces that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to change.

Most of the people that I know of who are actually doing something about these problems are people who have a foundation in the often hateful tradition of western reason. Now, I know that this might sound chauvinistic, but it isn't: I have no particular love for western culture except insofar as some of its ideas, more than those of any other culture, have tended towards man's liberation. I am not denying that westernism and capitalism are responsible for many if not most of the world's evils. But I look around and see that it is generally (there are many exceptions) those with the western ideals of reason, liberty, and equality who end up making the world a better place. Unfortunately reason has also led us to the a-bomb, liberty has become the rallying cry of warmongers, and equality is now the slogan of racist reactionaries who attack affirmative action. Does this mean that these ideas are evil and destructive in themselves? Or does it mean that we should try to be more persuasive about the importance of these values and more vigilant as to the uses of these terms?
posted by mokujin at 5:03 AM on February 23, 2005


Wow. I think this thread must set some kind of record for average length of comments.

Actually I thought mokujin made some very sensible points. It is quite wrong to describe the Middle Ages as a period of 'intellectual stagnation'. It is equally wrong to suppose that pre-Enlightenment scholars thought they knew everything worth knowing. (The motto of the classical scholar Daniel Heinsius was "quantum est quod nescimus', 'how little we know'.) And I would argue that it is also wrong, or at least misleading, to regard 'modernity' as the crucial watershed separating the present from the past.

I am also quite sympathetic to mokujin's defence of the canon. I have to admit my heart does sink slightly when I see the canon described as 'a tool to reinforce [a] sense of self-satisfaction' (LairBob) or 'a monolithic institution of some sort of power' (dame). This, to me, is redolent of the worst sort of Marxist literary criticism, in which everything is interpreted in terms of the 'cultural hegemony' of the dominant class. I am all in favour of the idea that we should be self-aware and self-critical in our thinking about the literary canon -- but I do not believe that the canon is merely an instrument of oppression, and I think it is naive to think of overturning the canon as the literary equivalent of storming the Bastille.

But the crucial point I want to make is that the 'Western canon' is not some precious heirloom that has been lovingly cherished and handed down from generation to generation. (That mistaken assumption is, I think, at the root of jessicool's very understandable puzzlement.) European intellectual history has been punctuated by fierce disagreements over the nature of the canon -- e.g. the sixteenth-century attacks on Aristotelianism, and the seventeenth-century disputes between the ancients and the moderns, to name only two of the most obvious examples. Quite simply, it is not the case that there was a universally-accepted canon of key texts which suddenly collapsed, or fractured into multiple canons, under the pressure of modernity.

Indeed, I am tempted to argue that the notion of the 'Western canon' as commonly understood -- i.e. a pantheon of great works including Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and Milton, which every educated person is expected to have read -- is actually a product of modernity. In a sense, this is to take, and stand on its head, LairBob's point about the eighteenth century as the period when the expansion of knowledge made it impossible for one person to master the whole field of learning. I think this is a valid point, but I don't think it led to the collapse of the literary canon. On the contrary, I think it led to the creation of the canon as a way of organising literature and separating the wheat from the chaff.

This can be seen in all sorts of ways. The period 1750-1850 is when Shakespeare is canonised as the pre-eminent English national dramatist. It is the period when the works of Shakespeare, Milton et al. start to be produced cheaply and marketed to a mass readership. It is the period when lists and catalogues of 'best books' start to be compiled. All these are signs of a literary canon in process of formation. And the period 1850-1950 is when Shakespeare and company start to be taught widely in schools, and when, for the first time, it does start to make sense to perceive Shakespeare as a symbol of 'high culture' or even an instrument of cultural imperialism.

So to reject 'the canon' is not, as some people imagine, to reject the entire tradition of intellectual thought in Western Europe (or Western Christianity). It is to reject a much more recent tradition of nineteenth-century pedagogy. For me, Harold Bloom's Western Canon represents the last gasp of this pedagogical tradition; and the sooner we stop talking about 'the Western Canon' when what we really mean is 'the Western Canon as defined by Harold Bloom', the sooner we shall be able to have a sensible discussion about classics and curriculums, without the feeling that Western culture is under attack and the barbarians are at the gates.
posted by verstegan at 5:03 AM on February 23, 2005


mokujin, apology accepted.

Let me just actually clarify my own personal experience and perspective on all this, though, since more than one person has taken my efforts to describe a larger school of thought, and used it assume very specific things about my own beliefs. Since I'm assuming that this is now a pretty private conversation, with relatively few people still following this thread, I'll be a little more open where I stand personally:

1) When I was an undergraduate, I switched from a very practical major (CompSci), which I really enjoyed, to a very un-practical one (French Literature and Philosophy), because I just couldn't resist the intellectual engagement I found in it. Beyond that, as a personal focus, I got deeply into the study of medieval French literature. Before I left--beyond spending a lot of time studying post-modern literary theory--I had spent two or three years reading Chretien de Troyes, Guillaume de Lorris / Jean de Meun, and a lot of their 11th/12th/13h century peers, in the original ancient French. So, while I'm no formal historian of the era, by any means, I really do have a deep, abiding love and respect for the intellectual accomplishments of that whole era, and a pretty detailed exposure to them.

2) After I graduated, I had the great fortune to become an English teacher at a very good school, and eventually got to teach an AP-level class of my own design, in "European Literature". Among the texts I chose were (all or part of): The Book of Job, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Montaigne's Essays, Madame Bovary, Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, The Trial, Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus" and Sartre's End Game.

I'm going to trust anyone still reading this thread to grant that I'm really not trying to get into some kind of credential chest-thumping. I just want to make it perfectly clear that I'm the first to concede that I think we're all standing on the shoulders of giants, and that the historical body of literary work that comes before us is _tremendously_ valuable. So much so, that I've structured several very important periods of my life around that very premise.

That being said, let me go back to address a coupld of the larger points you made, mokujin...

Regarding the intellectual accomplishments of the "Middle Ages", I was making a very specific assertion about the nature of what I carefully termed the "pseudo-intelligentsia". Even the "A" examples you cited--most of whom I _have_ read--were not members of the Sorbonne of similar academic institutions...for the most part, they were monks, or more free-wheeling scholars. From the medieval authors I just mentioned, through Rabelais and all the way to Moliere, the stagnant academic elites--the ones I'm asserting use the idea of a "canon" to protect their hegemony--were roundly mocked and reviled by the very people we _should_ admire and respect from those times. I'm basically just taking my cue from Rabelais, Moliere and even Voltaire, but I think there's plenty in the historical record to back me up. I know you've conceded that you weren't responding to quite the point I was trying to make, but given verstegan's follow-up comment, I just want to reiterate that pointing out that "there were a lot of self-serving sophists who abused the idea of a canon" doesn't in any way have to be read as a dismissal of the other, legitimate intellectual accomplishments of that time.

Regarding the larger point of "intellectual stagnation", though, I would just offer the position that while we've done a lot, recently, to rescue the "Dark Ages" from being unfairly stereotyped as nothing but ignorance and superstition, there were still a lot of prevalent cultural, religious and political mechanisms back then that asserted that--individually and collectively--we knew all we needed to know. Whether it was framed as religious humility--not daring to question the mind of God--or class oppression--not questioning your place in society--it was definitely a predominant cultural attitude. Most of the people you and verstegan cite, or could cite, as freer thinkers of the period either voiced their opinions in private writing or were jailed or killed for those very sentiments. In the political sense, that basic approach to human knowledge often translated into dominance and oppression, but in the "official" academic sphere, it very definitely translated into an arrogant attitude.

Even the legitimate and important efforts to resurrect the intellectual accomplishments of that era haven't erased the distinction in intellectual character between the Middle Ages and Renaissance/Enlightenment. Montaigne, as someone I see on the cusp of that historical transition, wrestled squarely with the issue of whether we could ever know all there was to know, and while he eventually came down to the "No, we can't side, many, many thinkers who followed saw it as an important stance to assert "Yes, we can", as a rejection of the "You can't know the mind of God" position.

Let's leave aside the point whether those later periods were somehow "better", or represent "progress"--I don't see how anyone could assert that they were fundamentally the _same_ in their overall attitudes towards our ability to understand the world today. Look at even all the publicity surrounding the Pope's new book this morning--not that I accept him as any kind of authority, but where does he trace the root of 20th-century evil? "To the Enlightenment, where the primacy of man's independent thought began to supersede his obedience to God."

Yes, he's oversimplifying. (And he's got a historical agenda a mile-wide on that specific topic). Admittedly, in positing a broad historical trend without endlessly qualifying it, _I'm_ over-simplifying. That doesn't negate, though, the basic point that there were manifest differences in how the pursuit of knowledge was perceived in the Middle Ages, in the Enlightenment, and today, and it doesn't mean that it's invalid to draw broad inferences over how that character has changed. I've got my own personal view on how the nature of that character has evolved over time, generally. (For example, I put together that syllabus _not_ because I felt they represented some kind of canon, but because I thought they illustrated a long line of thinking around what we can really know as fallible, mortal beings, and what moral responsibilities that knowledge, or lack of knowledge entails.) While I also think it's my intellectual responsibility to be _very_ familiar with all the ways in which history provides exceptions to that view, like the ones you've quoted, I wouldn't be any to hold any views at _all_ on the topic if that stopped me from trying to articulate it.
posted by LairBob at 7:39 AM on February 23, 2005


These are a bunch of really good books written in the west over the last 2400 years. They're very much worth reading. They are not the only things very much worth reading.

Actually, Bligh this is what I've been saying. Just more passionately. I simply think when you drag the term "canon" into it you're being anachronistic or dumb. Which I also said. As for thinking I'm right and other people are wrong, well, duh. Everyone thinks that (about themselves, not about me, of course).
posted by dame at 8:12 AM on February 23, 2005


I ♥ dame, and this thread in general. Thanks for asking such a provocative question, jessicool!

Indeed, I am tempted to argue that the notion of the 'Western canon' as commonly understood -- i.e. a pantheon of great works including Homer, Plato, Shakespeare and Milton, which every educated person is expected to have read -- is actually a product of modernity. In a sense, this is to take, and stand on its head, LairBob's point about the eighteenth century as the period when the expansion of knowledge made it impossible for one person to master the whole field of learning. I think this is a valid point, but I don't think it led to the collapse of the literary canon. On the contrary, I think it led to the creation of the canon as a way of organising literature and separating the wheat from the chaff.

This is an excellent point; I just want to point out that it does not apply only to the 18th century. There have been other times and places where the accumulation of knowledge and literature was overwhelming, and they produced canons of their own. China is an obvious example (where the canon was essentially unchanged for centuries before the overthrow of the empire); another is the Alexandrian/Roman world—the reason we have the particular Greek plays that we do is that they were included in the canon as the ones everybody needed to know, and copied in so many schoolbooks that they made it through the decimation of later centuries. So our (or Bloom's) canon is crucially dependent on that earlier canon for its starting point.
posted by languagehat at 8:22 AM on February 23, 2005


"I simply think when you drag the term 'canon' into it you're being anachronistic or dumb."

Well, I'll certainly add that to my dame stylebook for future reference.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:14 AM on February 23, 2005


"There have been other times and places where the accumulation of knowledge and literature was overwhelming, and they produced canons of their own."

"So our (or Bloom's) canon is crucially dependent on that earlier canon for its starting point."

You say these as if they're often overlooked points. Where are they often overlooked? Here? By any of us? But you should avoid the use of the word canon, as it is anachronistic or dumb.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:16 AM on February 23, 2005


Mokujin,

If you aren't arguing in defense of the notion of a canon, then we really have no argument (except about meaninglessness). I have no problem with ideals of liberty and reason, so long as they are critically understood. I am not interested solely in Marxist analysis, though that tendency is obviously predominant in this argument. It is one of many useful lenses and nothing more.

In a larger sense of inspiration for leftist activism, I do find an ideal notion of liberty insufficient. The point of working for freedom for all is, to me, working so that everyone has the best chance to construct a meaningful life. War is not bad just because it kills inherently valuable people; it is bad because it corrupts options to create worthwhile meaning. Likewise poverty. "Bad" things destroy the chance to become a full human, i.e. to consciously create a meaning that belongs to you and that you value.

So yes, people are inspired to work for the freedom of others through enlightenment ideas and through post-enlightenment ones. I simply object to claiming one of those inspirations is universally better as opposed to better to you.
posted by dame at 9:20 AM on February 23, 2005


"War is not bad just because it kills inherently valuable people; it is bad because it corrupts options to create worthwhile meaning."

I can't believe someone just wrote that sentence.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:26 AM on February 23, 2005


Why? Killing people is bad; so is a life without a chance to create meaning. In one case you're dead, and in the other you're half-alive. I don't know that I would prefer the latter.
posted by dame at 9:38 AM on February 23, 2005


At best, it's a truism. At worst, this assertion about a life with a "chance to create meaning" implicitly assumes that such a thing is possible; and, in using any specific example of something which opposes it, you're implicitly asserting the universality of some particular "meaning"—which is almost certainly culturally imperialist, a lie, and deeply patronizing. To be generous, I'll assume it's a truism.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:55 AM on February 23, 2005


Dame, EB, LairBob, Others,

I am trying to argue against those who argue against the canon. That sounds kind of perverse and tangled and/or meaningless so let me explain a little using some ideas that I worked out a few months ago with a friend of mine who studies Victorian lit. I think he had just read E.P. Thompson and I was trying to channel the works of Terry Eagleton and Raymond Williams that I had read a pretty long time ago. Oh yeah, we were watching a show on Tucson Public Access called Hegel Update, which has more to do with new world order conspiracy theories than it does with german philosophy. So anyway, this is some of what coalesced in our conversation made to be relevant to the present discussion:

I think that a lot of what has gone on in the humanities over the last half-century is a result of the need academics feel to constantly assert and define their own value and importance. This is the result of a number of causes, not the least of which is the huge expansion in the number of college students as a result of the GI bill and the shift from a largely rural society to an urban one. This has led to a number of things; most obviously the predominance of the sciences and the rise of the large research university; as well as the decline of the liberal arts in both cultural and economic stature. This has led to a crisis of meaning for humanities professors and for the humanities as a whole. In the face of hard pragmatic sciences and the burgeoning social sciences, both of which held obvious importance for industry, it was no longer enough to simply teach "appreciation" or "enjoyment" of literature. So it became desirable for academics in the humanities to assert their importance and relevance not in economic terms, as they had very little capital, but in political ones. I think that much of the scholarship of the last fifty years and many of the most well-known academic movements have arisen directly or indirectly from a feeling of inadequacy in relation to the "hard sciences."

So as a result of insecurities created by its nebulous and poorly defined mission contrasted with the obvious importance of other spheres of the university, the humanities as a whole have been trying to demonstrate the utility of literary studies in unsystematic and arbitrary ways. We are grabbing at straws. This is my way of explaining, among other things, the various fads for various frenchmen that have overtaken the academy over the past several decades. These fads, by the way, were almost completely isolated to the institutions of higher learning in the U.S and had little or no institutional impact on France or anywhere else. In countries where long entrenched traditions in the humanities held sway, such enthusiasms never really took off. Here, where the liberal arts have always been subservient to monied interests and the business of doing business has always been primary, and where letters has never really gained much of a foothold in public life, the new French thought provided a new, if questionable vitality to the humanities.

In my analysis, this expansion of the ideological purview of the humanities (an expansion never really matched in terms of economics or influence) had very little to do with the value of the ideas themselves, and very much to do with the effect those ideas had on the way the humanities saw themselves. English professors were no longer haggard and disrespected pedants, but the secret vanguard of the revolution, be it feminist, marxist or nihilist.

In the last thirty years or so, this shift has been most obvious in the form of what the right terms "political correctness." Obviously as a real cultural force this was never much more than a bogeyman to scare middle america and emasculate the left. That said, it is real: in the academy many of the tenets of radical feminist, marxist and postmodern thought have been absorbed dogmatically and with little regard to either their truth or their utility. This is how fashion works. Most academics and teachers trained in the last thirty years probably do not realize the extent to which we have unthinkingly absorbed and spread these ideas.

Now I have no specific problem with any of the ideas that I am alluding to, but I do have a problem with the way they have unreflectively taken hold of the brains of many. Most undergraduates have little time or inclination to actually contend with such confusing thinkers as Derrida, Foucault, or Baudrillard or whomever, in fact they may not even know those names; but they quickly learn, as I did, that by using certain words and phrases, and adopting certain attitudes they could succeed and impress their teachers. Now many if not most students in the humanities and even at the high school level have learned to mime attitudes and beliefs that may have once been well grounded positions and accepted them with little thought about their implications. The general tenets of relativism which are now absorbed and inhaled by many college or highschool students without any examination, and probably without them even realizing that it was taking place, have turned into guarantors of ignorance and intellectual isolation. I know this because I had already absorbed many such ideas by the time I entered college and they allowed me to think that I "knew something when I, in fact, knew nothing." I also know this because I have taught literature to undergraduates and have had them express such ridiculous sentiments as, "so?" and "well that is just your opinion," and "you can't really judge them."

So back to the canon. One other feature of recent intellectual life has been a constant buzz of argument about the canon. Both sides of this argument spring from disingenuousness. The right long ago realized that it could "galvanize" middle America by creating and attacking left-wing strawmen; this came to be called the culture war. The result? People vote contrary and against their own economic best interests because they are so enraged by the latest outrage committed by "red-diaper-doper-babies." On the left, attacks on the canon are equally disingenuous. They are, in my opinion, rooted not in logic or reason but in a desire to make the humanities "matter."

The academics most prone to taking issue with the canon tend to be those who are most interested in being provocative and becoming "stars," or those who are most resentful towards the academy because of their own historical exclusion from it (e.g. Africana and Women's studies). Neither of these are very good jumping off point for creating a pedagogical philosophy (isn't that what all this canon stuff is really about?) Thus, I have a hard time seeing canon-trashing from such quarters, argued, as it usually is, in emotional rather than logical terms, as anything more than a revaluation of values motivated by resentment.

Because I think that the notion of canon which we now have is a very recent development I have a very hard time with arguments that make claims about its longterm hegemonic domination of the oppressed and its silencing of "other voices." What silenced those voices was not an abstract syllabus of important works, but longstanding social and economic structures. If I were given persuasive evidence that scholars and academics, rather than factory owners and politicians, have been a major source of oppression, rather than one minor conduit of power, I would probably be more willing to accept this point of view. But so far I really haven't seen such an argument. In my experience the academy tends to reflect historical forces rather than guide them; thus, attacks on curricula are generally a form of misdirection, no matter how pure the intention behind them, or how raw the emotion.
posted by mokujin at 1:54 PM on February 23, 2005


Well, I have to say that I agree at least partly to all of that. But it's pretty cynical. On the other hand, those who attack the canon are very cynical about the canon's defenders, as well.

I think you ought to reconsider how little you think scholars matter politically in relation to power structures. I think you're right that, certainly in the US, they are certainly far from being the agents shaping our society. On the other hand, they play a very important part in the power structure.

I'm defensive about the canon in the opposite way that you are: I perhaps concede too much in order to be sure to make it clear that I'm not one of the "bad guys". But also, as I've made clear above, the culture wars (whoever started them, if you assume they are novel [which I don't], whoever is involved for whatever reasons) exasperate me so much that I declare a plague on both their houses. So to speak. And I don't see much coming of it, really. The cultural tides that shape American society are not academic. There is an important culture war going on in the US, but it's not between postmodernists and educational conservatives.

That said, I am moved to care and be active about it when it goes beyond rhetoric. When I was at St. John's in the early 90s, the accreditors of the Annapolis campus attempted to deny accreditation on the basis that the curriculum wasn't "diverse enough". There are warriors in this academic war who fight on practical grounds. That's a concern.

Your objection to pop-postmodernism is probably on the money and quite valid. But how is it any different than any other pop cultural take on serious ideas? And who are you going to blame?

In discussion of relativism, both philosophical and cultural, serious thinkers and academics will defend relativism from the crude strawman charges of things like "you claim that there is no truth, nothing can be known". They'll say, no, that's a gross mischaracterisation of relativism. I've read an academic compilation of essays by relativists on relativism, many of which said something to this effect and which the editor strongly asserted in his introduction. However, what I often mention when discussing this, is that pop-culture has assimilated relativism in that unnuanced version.

It's not unlike the Sophists. As many people point out, Plato's depiction of the Sophists was very biased, a caricature. But I've known real people who are very sophistical in the manner Plato claims the Sophists were. And I've known many a college student that does take the extreme relativist position—and always critically. In fact, in pop culture, relativism is a rhetorical tactic not a philosophy. Pop cultural relativists are relativists about people's beliefs with which they disagree. Very often, their own beliefs—ethics, even—are implicitly universal. There's something deeply dishonest about this, and it's something worth being outspoken against. But I don't think it's clear to these people that they're doing what they're doing. In that sense, it can't be dishonest, can it?

But it isn't postmodernism that is to blame for this naive relativism. The ideas represented in postmodernism are not really new, they have a long and respected history. In philosophy and literature, this conversation (or argument) has always been going on. What is different is the ascendency of science in western culture. (Mostly by way of technology; but scientists are the people produce the theory enabling the building of golems.)

Postmodern relativism, although not "new", owes its increasing stature to the pop-cultural changes wrought by the change from the 19th century's scientific determinism and absolutism to the 20th century's scientific indeterminsm and relativism. I tend to think that pop philosophical relativism is more a product of the assimilation of Relativity into pop culture than it is the product of any single other influence. You cannot blame the postmodernists for that.

You're right that humanities departments don't matter. Philosophy and literature no longer shape western society, assuming they ever did, which I don't. Nietszche was right: science and technology are overwhelmingly dominant; philosphy is dead, perhaps redundant (well, I think he would say "impotent"). Although I don't think this should be the case, Einstein with Relativity shaped the modern world far more than any philospher, artist, or literary critic has. The variety of intellectualism that is truly taken seriously in our culture is science. As science redefines what the universe is, slowly the rest of the culture follows.

All this is to say that there really isn't a target for your cultural criticism. It's amorphous. The ideas you see as corruptingly dominant have always existed; if they're ascendent, they're ascendent as the result of a combination of historical forces, not some conniving cabal, and certainly not by the agency of malevolent literary theorists.

And finally, in the real world, almost none of this is about what it claims to be about. People cherry-pick intellectualisms to support their ideologies which, in turn, almost always reflect their unexamined biases and desires. There is no rigor there, and "there" is almost everywhere. If you are serious and rigorous about these ideas, it's very unlikely that the person you're arguing with is. So what's the point?

Also, anyway, if your philosophy is deeply related to your values, and you're in any sense political, then there are far, far more substantial things you can be doing to further and protect your values than argue the philosophy behind them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:26 PM on February 23, 2005


While I wouldn't argue some of the broader assumptions you're making, mokujin, I think EB has also summed up a lot of the relevant counter-points.

Let me first say that having followed the course of study I did as an undergraduate, I avoided the idea of grad school like the plague, for many of the exact same reasons you've described. One of my most gratifying experiences as an undergrad was at the beginning of an undergrad/grad seminar, where the prof had discretion over who was or wasn't in the class, and she summarily threw out every single grad student who started blathering on using facile jargon. She was this tiny little French woman, and she just said "I have _no_ idea what you're saying".

That being said, I also definitely feel that you're tarring 20th century intellectuals with the exact same broad brush that you were so upset over when you felt I was using it on medieval scholars. Even if the majority of folks making a living in college lit departments fit the profile you've described, it's still a dramatic, and pretty unfair, over-simplification to say that they're all the same.

Finally, though, on the main objection I've got to your comments--your assertion that:

"These fads, by the way, were almost completely isolated to the institutions of higher learning in the U.S and had little or no institutional impact on France or anywhere else. In countries where long entrenched traditions in the humanities held sway, such enthusiasms never really took off."

That really could not be more patently untrue. Modern French culture has been deeply affected by the modern/post-modern thought that arose there, and not just in the kind of facile way that you think our culture has here in the US.

I was about to launch into a long discussion of how it seems clear to me that Continental philosophy has differed from Anglo-American philosophy, but suffice it to say this--the French have always taken philosophical issues to apply far more broadly than just "literary theory", and I'm not just talking about post-modernism. Not for nothing were thinkers like Sartre and Camus simultaneously accepted and encouraged as leading philosophers _and_ authors/playwrights, and they're just relatively recent examples of a tradition that reaches very far back.

The ideas of Sartre, Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, Deleuze and others are _much_ more widely disseminated in the broader French culture than any parallel collection of intellectuals are here in the US, and their approach to critical thought is much more widely applied to popular culture, as a whole, than it is here. In France, philosophical compendiums regularly make the best-seller lists.

I'm not trying to say that France is a society of intellectuals, and we're not--God only knows there's enough to criticize about what goes on over there. But for better or worse, post-modern approaches to culture and politics are much more a legitimate part of the cultural and political debate there than they are here, and in a meaningful way. The nature of French popular thought owes a great deal to, and openly celebrates, the critical theories and philosophy of the 20th century.

That leads me, though, to one of the most important distinctions I learned to draw when I was still interested in formally studying this stuff--the difference between what I've always called "Big D Deconstruction" and "little d deconstruction". "Big D Deconstruction", as a "school" or a "movement", is exactly all the bad stuff you're talking about--it's cryptic discussion of "the text" and "logocentrism" and all the buzzwords, for the sake of sounding like a member of an exclusive club. I hate that shit, and it drove me away screaming from academia.

"Little d deconstruction", though, is something _very_ different, and deeply inquisitive--it is basically an approach, a process, that constantly assumes that there is probably another, hidden component to whatever it is that you're thinking about, and refuses to stop worrying at any given topic. When it's used in a structured and intelligent way, it provides an enormous amount of new insights into issues that already seemed settled a long time ago, because our cultural biases had allowed us to accumulate these huge blind spots. I would argue that that aggressive passion "not to settle" has had a substantial, salutary influence on modern thinking, and got a huge boost, here and in Europe, from people who took the best from post-modern thought.

The irony, of course, is that so many of the folks who drove this new approach ended up getting swallowed by the monster they created. Foucault, in my opinion, went completely off the deep end on both a personal _and_ intellectual level, but his early works the nature of power and how it affects the "official" historical record clearly paved the way for the modern historical approach of people like Elaine Pagels. Derrida basically became a fount of crypto-meaningless jargon, but his aggressive, bare-knuckled examinations of how we interpret reality made an enormous impact on how we've learned to hold ideas at arm's length and scrutinize them.

To a large degree, I think you're missing the impact these changes have had because they're already so _prevalent_. Just look at the nature of so many of your _own_ observations, where they focus on the political power structure that drove the idea of a canon to become useful--do you really think people thought of things that way 50-100 years ago? They didn't, but we all do now because of the very schools of thought you're decrying.
posted by LairBob at 5:01 PM on February 23, 2005


in using any specific example of something which opposes it, you're implicitly asserting the universality of some particular "meaning"—which is almost certainly culturally imperialist, a lie, and deeply patronizing. To be generous, I'll assume it's a truism.

Dude, your opiates are interfering with your making-sense function again.
posted by dame at 6:02 PM on February 23, 2005


Or, on second thought, maybe it's just your ass-backwards image of me.
posted by dame at 6:05 PM on February 23, 2005


Annoyance at Bligh aside, he and LiarBob have made very good points. There are still a few things I would like to address.

Mokujin: The academics most prone to taking issue with the canon tend to be those . . . who are most resentful towards the academy because of their own historical exclusion from it (e.g. Africana and Women's studies). Neither of these are very good jumping off point for creating a pedagogical philosophy (isn't that what all this canon stuff is really about?) . . . What silenced those voices was not an abstract syllabus of important works, but longstanding social and economic structures.

I think you are interpeting what happened in reverse. Because longstanding economic and social structures have changed enough to make the academy accessible to these previously denied voices, they are interested in seeing themselves and what they know reflected in official venues of knowledge. This is not a case resentment-driven destruction but of access-driven reformulation. Most of the people I know who became academics in these fields were driven by a desire to make something they found utterly worthwhile reflect the current situation. That is, it is love at root not hate. And that seems to be an excellent foundation for pedagogical philosophy.


Bligh: Pop cultural relativists are relativists about people's beliefs with which they disagree. Very often, their own beliefs—ethics, even—are implicitly universal. There's something deeply dishonest about this, and it's something worth being outspoken against.

You know, Bligh, I think this goes to the very center of our disagreements (like the question of delineating what is acceptable v. delineating what is not). There is something you don't appear to get: understanding the fundamental relativity of beliefs is not incompatible with behaving as if yours are implicitly universal. It is just "agreeing to disagree." I think I am so obviously right and so do you; we cannot both be right; there is no way of saying who is actually right; and then, well, then so what. We argue and maybe learn something and maybe revise our personal truths and generally go on with the business of keeping ourselves going till we die.

It isn't dishonest to say you don't know and then pick one option and run with it as that beats sitting around going "there's no way to know, there's no way to know, there's no way to know."

People cherry-pick intellectualisms to support their ideologies which, in turn, almost always reflect their unexamined biases and desires.

What about cherry-picking your intellectualisms to support your examined biases and desires? Really, if you think that everyone is biased and desirous, and you have looked at your own biases and desires and are content with what meaning they give your life, well then, it's like above isn't it?

Also, anyway, if your philosophy is deeply related to your values, and you're in any sense political, then there are far, far more substantial things you can be doing to further and protect your values than argue the philosophy behind them.

I couldn't disagree more. Arguing the philosophy behind them is a way of understanding them. And if you are going to spend time taking actions based on those values, then understanding them is pretty essential. Not to mention, arguing about them is the only way you're going to get others to understand them. And I have found that the better people understand the motivations behind my actions, the better they are received.

To that I end, I want to add, in closing, that I am not exactly a culture warrior in the sense that you seem to define it. The canon debate is not something I seek out on a regular basis. It was just here and I felt like having it now. You know, for kicks.

Also, mokujin, do you read The Reading Experience? You'd probably like it. He drives me mad and yet I go back again and again.
posted by dame at 7:40 PM on February 23, 2005


Just a note:

"There is something you don't appear to get: understanding the fundamental relativity of beliefs is not incompatible with behaving as if yours are implicitly universal. It is just 'agreeing to disagree.'"

Oddly, this is exactly my ethos. But it doesn't seem to me that you "agree to disagree" as you claim. It seems to me that you say that you do so as sort of a passive-aggressive shield. The template is: "You're an idiot. But that's just my opinion." Contempt is aggressive, and aggression is imperialistic. It's antithetical to the principle of toleration which arises from relativism.

I do a lot of explicit things to counter my giving this impression; but I'm well aware that my tone, my style, drips with a variety of arrogance which is almost exactly equivalent to "You're an idiot". Even so, I'm not the least bit proud that I'm calling people idiots, implicitly or explicitly. I'm embarassed by it. It's one of my biggest vices. In contrast, you've integrated this aggression into your ethics. But I don't see you can, because it's antithetical to the philosophy behind your ethos.

This is relevant to the larger discussion because I believe that yours is an individual example of a general characteristic of pop-relativism: as I said, it's a tactic and not really a philosophy. It's self-serving. It's convenient. It's also defensive and aggrieved and; as is always true of the defensive and aggrieved, justifies aggression on that basis.

I like to say that I'm theoretically a relativist but practically an absolutist. So, as I said, your formulation is extremely similar to mine. But that combination demands firmness and self-assuredness tempered by respect and kindness. Relativism is very much a sort of empathy; it should curb intellectual agression, not justify.

"What about cherry-picking your intellectualisms to support your examined biases and desires? Really, if you think that everyone is biased and desirous, and you have looked at your own biases and desires and are content with what meaning they give your life, well then, it's like above isn't it?"

Yes, but the problem is with the "cherry-picking" part. There's nothing wrong with rationalizing biases and desires in a careful, self-critical way; but no matter what they are, they are certain to imply belief and behaviors that are not felicitous. Am I fetishizing consistency? No, because I think I have a good argument supporting the importance of consistency. Consistency is essential to reason; if you're going to rationalize something, you're stuck with consistency. If you don't want consistency and the difficulties it brings, then why bother to rationalize these things in the first place? Just do them, be them. But:

"I couldn't disagree more. Arguing the philosophy behind them is a way of understanding them. And if you are going to spend time taking actions based on those values, then understanding them is pretty essential. Not to mention, arguing about them is the only way you're going to get others to understand them. And I have found that the better people understand the motivations behind my actions, the better they are received."

Of course understanding them is essential and doing so via rational discourse is very effective. I'm not so sure about "others understanding one's motivations" part. Oh, I'm very much this way, as well; but I can't help but be very suspicious of the emphasis on other people understanding you. (Or me.) It very well could be proselytization in disguise.

The broader question or disagreement between us here involves the relative importance of the world of ideas. I very much live in the world of ideas; doing so pretty much defines me.

But, unlike many other similarly inclined people, I don't believe this is an end unto itself. Aristotle argues that the best life is the contemplative life; and he defines this as something completely independent from, deliberately disengaged from, everything that is not contemplation. I don't accept this.

I think that an individual's well-being is interdependent with that of others. This being the case, then a rationalized ethos is necessarily political and practical. So that right there rules out the contemplative life (as Aristotle defines it) as the "best" life.

But humanity's intellectualism is infantile, in my opinion. It's too patchy, too ad hoc to serve us very well as the font for a practical ethos. What I mean by that is that a fully rationalized ethos is beyond our current capacity; and for this reason attempting it on an individual basis provides steeply diminshing returns. Best to examine it, rationalize it to a moderate degree, but not to expect that by doing so virtue will automatically flow from it. Instead, attend to the simple, practical experience of how one lives one's life and interacts with other people. All too often, chasing after those diminishing returns is, I think, an excuse to avoid the practical responsibilities of what it means to try to be a virtuous person.

From this perspective, I deeply disagree with those who believe that the battle for the creation of a just society is best engaged in the world of ideas; as if everything will follow from doing so. It's a component, but just a component, of building a better world. The culture warriors are largely wasting their efforts.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:05 PM on February 23, 2005


aggression is imperialistic

I find insisting on niceness is far more "imperialistic" than honest passion and a tart tongue. Where I come from, getting animated about stuff is called a good discussion.
posted by dame at 10:29 PM on February 23, 2005


Being animated and passionate is not the equivalent of aggression. It seems bizarre to me that you don't understand that.

I've been in more "good discussions" than you probably ever will, and an essential character of them was that they were "nice". Also animated and passionate.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:26 AM on February 24, 2005


Lairbob,

I know for a fact that people thought in a similar way to this fifty, seventy-five, and even 150 years ago because I am indebted in my vulgar analyses of complex structures to, in addition to Foucault, Veblen, Marx, Weber, Lukacs, and especially Adorno and Horkheimer. That said, you are still very correct: I cannot help being a product of my age, and many of the worthwhile ideas of folks like Barthes and Foucault are now taken for granted by me and everyone else with an interest in the humanities. But doesn't that serve my argument?

I didn't really set out to examine the actual content of what is generally called theory, or to look at all of its effects on the academy or the minds of the academy. I am painting this with a very broad brush as I am trying to talk about a few specific cultural trends rather than get caught up in the sorts of historical details that I have forgotten, if I ever knew them in the first place. I have a great deal of respect for most of the intellectuals that I am generalizing about here, but, as is obvious from what I wrote above, I am very concerned about the way that their ideas have infiltrated our culture and the unintended and unforeseeable consequences of that infiltration.

I think that we agree about the deep differences between the U.S. and French academic and intellectual institutions. One thing that many people forget is that all these French thinkers I keep referring to, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, and many of the rest who have impacted our universities, were trained philosophers. Now, that means something very different in France than it does here, but there is still a fundamental problem when American scholars who are trained in literary studies and may or may not have the intellectual training and rigor to analyze philosophical arguments begin adopting these arguments as the result of an intellectual fad. Now I am not saying that this is always the case or that no good came of this, simply that this is one more piece of evidence that the phenomenon of Franco-philosophy in the U.S. had less to do with any intellectual rigor and debate, and more to do with many other factors.

Here it was like an economic bubble, an explosive enthusiam that really took hold of entire English departments and seemed to have little to do with any concrete historical circumstances. In France it was part of a fairly well established continuum of intellectual tradition. Intellectual movements of this sort seem like a pretty important part of their intellectual history in the modern era and, as you pointed out earlier, even before. Furthermore, French post-structuralism was historically rooted not only in the events of May 68, but back through existentialism and phenomenology and into the prewar years back to Nietzsche and Hegel. What happened in the United States beginning with the 1960s was the adoption of a system of thought that had almost no prior grounding in American culture. In france this "movement" has a continuous and organic history that can be traced pretty far back. In the states it was inorganic and historically abrupt.

One serious catalyst to all this in the U.S. that I didn’t mention earlier, but that has certainly played a part in all this, is the combined requirements of tenure and the needs of academic presses to hype and sell books.



EB and Dame, there are a few other comments that I want to make in regards to your comments, but I am pressed for time right now. I will try to put something up later.
posted by mokujin at 4:40 AM on February 24, 2005


Well, then, mokujin, if we can both grant each other the benefit of the doubt regarding the simplifications we're forced to make, then we basically agree. I never would've said that _no one_ thought that way before the advent of modernism--look at Machiavelli for the most obvious example from a very long time ago, and there are many, many others.

What seems very clearly new to me, though, is the _prevalence_ of that approach in the general public discourse. Focusing on the politics and power structure behind any given issue, current or historical, has become a very common approach--almost overused. Sure, there've been people who've that way since way back when, but its status as a common trope is definitely a legacy of post-modernism.
posted by LairBob at 5:16 AM on February 24, 2005


The only time people bring up being "nice" is when they're trying to shut up their opponents. I find it bizarre that you don't understand that.

But you're right: I don't have a problem with my agression in discussion. If something is strong it will stand and if isn't, it oughtn't. So either get a backbone & some fighting spirit or go hide in your musty little college memories or, best, just argue the way you want to and let me argue my way. But spare me your pompous demands that I be just like you would rather. You are the best argument against yourself.

Mokujin, looking forward.
posted by dame at 11:03 AM on February 24, 2005


"The only time people bring up being "nice" is when they're trying to shut up their opponents."

You live in a sad little world.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:07 AM on February 24, 2005


Yes, the world contains much sadness. And with technology it is getting smaller every day. But I do take solace in not being a pompous prick, so I've got that going for me.

I wold like to respond to your actual argument (the thing wrapped inside your condescending misinterpretations), but I have a job. Maybe this evening.
posted by dame at 12:07 PM on February 24, 2005


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