Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Canon and Communion

What do you read when there are too many books? What do you follow when there are too many media?

One answer is: nothing in particular. You cannot visit cities without mapping them first. So if you are interested in books that have been written, it would be too haphazard a method to simply pick something old off the shelf. No, you take everything you can carry, throw it into a linguistic corpus database, and start your SPSS program to figure out the constants. It’s called ‘distant reading’.

I have nothing against the practice per se. After all, our understanding of ancient texts has been enriched by philological research that has little to do with the texts in themselves, and on occasion has done violence to them (‘We murder to dissect’: see Tolkien’s Allegory of the Tower). But ‘distant reading’ cannot replace, or even half replace, the close reading we all know and love.

Another answer: we read whatever tickles our fancy. This is much more widely practised. It is appealing and has much to offer, even though we risk missing out on important voices that our ear must first grow accustomed to.

The problem with it is a social-cultural one. Reading (and this can be taken in a broad sense to include any absorption of artistic work) not only forms people, but the text itself is assimilated, becomes a reference, a saying that seems to speak for itself (either positively or negatively: cf. ‘Turn the other cheek’ and ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’), something to play with, hint at, pun on. One does not simply read without getting drawn into a cultural web that connects not only books but people, lending the potency of play to speech, with all its surprises and calls for alertness, its flexible rules and enabling constraints. Speech is so much more than passing on information on ‘alles, was der Fall ist’.

The social-cultural problem with whimsical reading habits is that fancies are rather divergent, especially through time. This leads to the formation of dozens of subcultures of reading, from the Star Wars cult to the Twilight fanclub, and a drastic reduction of the half-life of cultural radiation. In thirty years, who will understand one percent of our current viral memes?

I am not arguing to prohibit the formation of Star Wars and Twilight groups (well, give me time to think about the latter). I am merely arguing that if we want to remain on speaking terms with each other, some common core of shared absorptions is necessary. No objective observer guarantees that this core represents the best and noblest of what has been thought and said. It is worth asking why certain human works have been enduringly appreciated, but it is more necessary to transmit the appreciation as well as possible.

A canon emerges out of a communion, holds it together, almost seems to have founded it. This is not only true in religious communities, but also in academic and cultural (e.g. national) communities. Any member can be skeptical about canonical values or even the value of the canon, but as long as he knows and transmits it, the communion holds.

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