Love, literary canons, and gatekeeping behaviour

Canonical texts are beloved. Assembling the literary output of (what amounted to mostly dead, mostly white, mostly male) authors and examining their themes, their tropes, their references to politics and art history and so on, is what made English departments in the Western world historically great – their ability to take texts and relate their elements to the human condition, link them to social issues, make veiled political references, and advance philosophy and knowledge of what it means to be human. It’s true that there is something about these texts that speaks to the human soul, they comfort readers with familiarity and challenge them with new ideas, they give their readers and critics a sense of belonging to a larger community and their meaning changes and adapts through the years, allowing readers to come back and find new ways of looking at the text, the world, the world of the text.

And so the suspicion towards digital humanists held by academics and other book-lovers is completely understandable, as is the popularity of articles such as Stephen Marche’s Literature is not Data. People are very invested in their love of these texts. This despite the fact that a lot of digital humanities projects such as the Emily Dickinson Archive actually can deepen readers’ engagement with and access to original manuscripts. The Transcribe Bentham project discovered never-before-seen manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham’s that had been thought “lost”, while going through his work to prepare it to be digitized.

The “text-and-text alone” approach of New Criticism in academia gave rise to a culture of exclusivity based around these texts. The texts belong in the canon due to their greatness; their greatness can be ascertained from textual evidence; this textual evidence is why they are in the canon in the first place. Et cetera. Close reading and evaluation of texts is useful to do, definitely, but not in order to separate the (human) wheat from the chaff or to institute a hierarchy of authors. As engaged thinkers, we need to be wary of those who defend canons: not to demonize them, but to recognize that, like any proponents of an ideology or belief, their investment can lead to peculiar hostile behaviour towards outsiders.

To paraphrase Matthew Wilkens, canons exist, and we need to do something about them (from his chapter in Debates in the Digital Humanities). We seem to already be doing something about canons – but usually this is negative “gatekeeping” behaviour like marginalizing newcomers, and can be prompted by fear, love for the canon, the literary community, the texts themselves: gatekeeping automatically assumes that it is the outsiders who are hostile, and adopts a pre-emptive aggression the belies their protestations that they, members of a historically marginalized group, are in fact mild, welcoming, nice guys.

The opening of a literary canon, or of any collection of texts (including vidya gaems) to outside critique and new methods of interpretation seems to make its adherents anxious, and not just in academia. The recent example of #puppygate with regards to the Hugo Awards in science fiction circles made the hostile nature of those ascribing to a certain canon very explicit. (Phil Sandifer has written a thorough summation of the whole debacle here). It reminds me a bit of villain Corvina and his pals’ perpetuation of their secret society of the Unbroken Spine in Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore; the society is a group that jealously guards their members’ (autobiographical) texts to the point of chaining them to tables and purging the works of members who dare attempt to reach out to non-members or share their secrets with the outside world.

I’m not arguing for a scrapping of the idea of canon as a whole, neither in the community of SFF nor in the ivory tower. But neither am I taken with the way in which certain factions argue against digital methods, or sexual diversity, or the inclusion of POC voices as if that threatens the integrity of the literary works they love. I hope to point out a few similarities in the ways that these groups act, or are prompted to act, out of love for a body of text. Love is grand! But can make you do the wacky.

Canons exist. We need to do something not just about them, but with them. Whether that means opening them up, analyzing them with new tools and methods, evaluating them not just as texts but as cultural objects, thinking about their usefulness to our lives today, or exporting their data to be able to draw conclusions on a large scale, is up to the the people using them. But the gate needs to be opened, with love, to allow people to have that chance.

*Franco Moretti offers another definition for distant reading: “in which the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction” (1).

**I owe a lot to Matthew Wilkins’ chapter “Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method” for this discussion of canon.

Works cited / works consulted for the unlinkable:

Bassett, Caroline. “Canonicalism and the Computational Turn.” Berry, David M. Understanding Digital Humanities. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 29 Sept. 2015.  105-126.

Ginzberg, Carlo. “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm.” Clues, Myths and the Historical Method. Trans. John and Anne C. Tedeschi. Johns Hopkins UP, 1986. Electronic. 96-125.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. New York: Verso, 2007.

Terras, Melissa. “Present, Not Voting: Digital Humanities in the Panopticon.” Berry, David M. Understanding Digital Humanities. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 29 Sept. 2015. 172-190.

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