Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Community, Consumption, and the Canon (Part 2)

In my first post, I discussed Augustine’s idea that a community is bound by common “objects of love,” by real things which people experience in common. I hope here to use that definition to get a better handle on why the canon—the art and ideas that are foundational to our culture—needs to be central to any academic community.

The arguments “against” the canon are not without merit. I don’t think I have to rehash them in their entirety here, but more or less I’m speaking of the movements that gained influence in the last half-century or so in the academy and sought to de-centralize university curricula. That is, they sought to move the focus of our academic departments –especially the Humanities—away from what was written by Dead White Males and towards groups who existed, at least historically, at the margins of Western culture. By almost every standard, this movement has succeeded. Outside of only a few religious or staunchly conservative institutions, most colleges and universities now are well stocked with all kinds of departments unheard of until recently: Postcolonial Studies, Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, Latino Studies, Caribbean Studies, LGBT/Gender Studies, etc. And if you take a course in, say, English Literature, you would be forgiven if you thought you had walked into one of these courses instead. More so than gaining brick-and-mortar departments in universities, the movement has wildly succeeded in gaining sway in terms of ideology; read Shakespeare in an English course today and chances are, your professor will constantly bring the lenses of the aforementioned cultural studies to bear on the text. It’s the party line for literature professors.

The de-centralizing movement has good points, no doubt. Western culture, as history makes clear, certainly has its blind spots. And yes, the canonical works, because they were written by Dead White Males, espouse the values of Dead White Males and all of these blind spots. No argument there. I think its mistake, though, lies in its assumption that, as an “accepted list” of great books, the canon functions as a propaganda machine, imposed from the top down by authorities who seek to maintain power. In short, the idea of a canon is a textbook example of what the modern academy would call hegemony.

What this assumption overlooks, though, is the organic nature of the canon. The great works are not unlike striking features of a landscape, an analogy I tried to tease out in my first post. Things like mountains, rivers, and rock formations continuously hold the attention of the residents of the surrounding area. Their gazes naturally return to these places, as do their thoughts. They give names to them, perhaps revere them (think of a Native American tribe), and understand themselves in relation to them. These distinct features, in holding their common attention, create a community. Things like these are Augustine’s “objects of love.”

That thing which we have come to call Western culture, for all its foibles and missteps, is held together by something similar—the stories and ideas and works of art to which our gazes have returned for centuries.  Sure, the list of “approved” works—Homer, Plato, Chaucer, Dante, the Gospels, etc.— have become “codified” (if that is even the word) in what we have come to call, loosely, the canon, but they have been so institutionalized because of their influence in shaping who we are and how we understand ourselves.

Even the most strident deconstructionists have their own canon, though they might not identify it as such. It would include thinkers like deBeauvoir, Derrida, Benjamin (say it with me…Ben-ha-meen) or perhaps some others, but regardless, to speak of a community at all is to delineate those things which are inside and those things which are outside. Communities are defined by what is held in common, and, though this does not mean there is no room for dissent within a community, it does mean that there comes a point where we must acknowledge that, as Yeats put it, “the centre cannot hold.” You can only de-centralize so much before a community ceases to be a community.

Why am I writing about all this? Hasn’t it been all said before? Well, to some extent, yes. But I think this is an opportune moment, historically, to consider questions about what it means to speak of a community. The left and right both seem to be fragmenting, accelerated by the echo chamber of contemporary media. And, as I mentioned in the first post, consumerism is behind it all—more than anything else, consumer capitalism created and fuels this media climate. It is as if a company got everyone together, sold each person a microphone and hand-held speaker, and told them to have a blast. Chaos, of course, is bound to ensue—but that company’s CEO is set for life.

I also think that most defenses of the canon fail to address the underlying issue of community. Not all, of course. But too often its defenders argue for the canon by referring to the merits of its ideas, or of its art itself. This approach is ultimately ineffective in the face of an opposition that is founded on incommensurable principles. (Alasdair Macintyre explores this problem of incommensurability in broader terms in After Virtue, and his insights are excellent.) What some see as the “merits” of Plato’s thought, for example, are precisely those things which disqualify it for others. Perhaps those merits are in fact merits, and it is the job of the liberal arts to explore that possibility through close reading, discussion, argument, etc. But there is a more fundamental reason why a student should study Plato: his thought has tremendously influenced the way we understand ourselves today. All philosophy and politics are footnotes to his own; they proceed from arguments made against his. The way our cities are organized, the way our judicial system proceeds, all trace their roots to Plato (and thus Socrates).

Plato is but one example, of course, but hopefully my point is clear. If we desire to have an intellectual community, we must study the most influential works of Western culture, because that is the culture that happens to be ours. It is the culture that gave us the university itself. This does not mean there is no room for studies of other communities, of historically marginalized or recently emergent ones, but it does mean that, as long as we hope to maintain anything resembling an “academy,” we must continually return to the canon. Ignoring it would be to give up any pretense to a genuine intellectual community.

Speaking of the broader world outside of academia, it used to be that popular art filled that unifying role for us. Think of the plays and shows and music from the 20th century that everyone seems to know. Put on “Born to Run,” and people will start singing along and start reminiscing about when they saw The Boss. Start humming “Yellow Submarine” and be prepared to hear everyone within earshot belt out the chorus. Or consider, as I did in the last post, the proportion of Americans who watched shows like Cheers and M*A*S*H*. Now, pop culture is another area in which consumerism has found ways to separate us. We have options galore, and we watch or listen largely in private (even when we’re in public). The music we listen to, it seems, has become something not unlike the brands of clothing we wear—they are facets of our personal style, and as we sink deeper into our own individual interests we move farther and farther from those “objects of love” that would otherwise hold us in common.

Returning, at least in our study, to gaze at the most prominent features of our intellectual landscape will do quite a bit to restore our links to each other and to our past. It is not unlike the idea that we need to return to nature—to the first “objects of love”—to restore ourselves.

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