Canon and Contingency

I do think that a great many of the supposed great men were indeed great, or that at least their books were. But I realize that their greatness was a function of a host of factors which recent scholarship has begun to identify.

I brought together Daniel Boorstin alongside Mario Biagioli and Peter Dear, hoping to compare and contrast two different approaches to historiography. Boorstin gives us an armchair-historian’s guided tour through the gallery of major discoverers. The story he tells is sensible and memorable, precisely because of its simplicity, its reliance on conventional plots and character types (adopted from Aristotle’s Poetics and imposed arbitrarily on Galileo), and its apparent assumption that scientific discovery takes place in a world relatively remote from social forms and practices. If the ideas of great men are influenced, Boorstin seems to suggest, they are influenced directly and almost exclusively by other great ideas.

Pietro da Cortona
The Glorification of The Reign of Pope Urban VIII (1633)


In contrast to this, Biagioli and Dear, not national librarians but rather recent scholars of the history of science and technology, tell a very different story, one in which scientific discovery is always deeply imbricated within a dense tissue of complex social relations and material practices. We discussed the case of Galileo somewhat in class yesterday. To the best of my limited abilities, I tried to show he Galileo did not simply reflect, from an external remove, about the heavens and how they operated, or for that matter about the Medici court and how it operated. Rather, Galileo, as I presented him, treated the court culture surrounding the Medici family, or those surrounding the Duke of Milan or Pope Urban VIII, as aesthetic mediums through which, or within which, it was possible to practice science as an art. Indeed, one didn’t practice science according to a method so much as one performed it, musically.

This social immersion and public performance were precisely what I hoped to suggest Descartes sought to overcome. His epistemological revolution was intended to remove the thinking subject (res cogitans) entirely from the material world (res extensa) and thus open to possibility of scientific objectivity. We no longer perform science, or natural history, within a world charged with ‘marvels’ and ‘wonders’ which reveal themselves to us and command our attention, but instead we practice science at a distance from the world, operating upon it as a dead matter which we submit to our rational command.

The interest of Peter Dear’s essay is his insistence that Descartes, for all he claims in his Meditations On First Philosophy and Discourse On Method to be an autonomous ego occupying a position entirely outside of and aloof from any material, social or historical context, creates a mechanistic world view which is not so novel and groundbreaking so much as it is highly expressive of the context in which was written. Descartes’s writings, brilliant and insightful though they be, are not so much the cause as they are the effect of profound changes in human knowledge and action. As Ernst Mach and the positivist theoreticians of science thought in the 19th century, science, here, does not offer us the truth of nature which common sense and sense perception fail to apprehend. Rather, things as they really are, according to these thinkers, will never be available to us. Instead of absolute truth, science offers the commonsense perception of the world, as we experience it, expressed in the most efficient and self-consistent shorthand, which is to say, in the form of algorithms.

As for expanding or revising the canon to admit a greater range of identities, this is something which has been taking place for a long as a canon has existed, though the intensity of the debate has increased considerably since the 1960s, in both literature and visual arts. As I tried to suggest in my original post, there are those who would want to abolish any notion of canon whatsoever. I have sat on academic committees quite recently whereat professors have argued as much, calling for the final abolition of Liberal Education (with its focus on Great Books) and its replacement which something far more practical and less traditional called General Education. Here, students would be taught skills for citizenship through contemporary sources and practical experience, and never dabble in anything smacking of history or literature. (I’ll leave you to guess at my response to these suggestions.)

For what it’s worth, Eliot, though he was avowedly conservative and did subscribe to the ideology of the ‘white marble bust’, nevertheless did not have any particular aversion to canonizing writers who were either female or queer or both. The most striking example of this receptiveness to other identities was Eliot’s championing of the novels of Djuna Barnes. What seems clean to me though, is that Eliot valued novels such as Nightwood not because they were expressive of Barnes’s life in particular or lesbian experience in general, but rather because they, like the works of the Metaphysical Poets, showed a profound capacity for complete immersion within the the artistic medium of language, and an ability to use that medium to preserve in permanent form affective states not available outside of literature.

Barnes, though a gay woman in real life, succeeded, when writing, to rise above the particularities of her individual identify and speak in a voice which was thoroughly abstract and entirely above gender and sexuality. Or so Eliot, in strict opposition to the doctrines guiding Gender Studies today, would have contended. In this, Eliot would not have been so very far from ideas expressed by another female writer with whom he would have felt great kinship, Virginia Woolf. In her highly esteemed (and, to my mind, frequently misunderstood) A Room of One’s Own, Woolf puts forth the idea that great literary production requires the surmounting of gender and the accession to state of pure consciousness.

Virginia Woolf, it should be noted also participated in the process of canon formation and revision. For, in addition to stories and novels, she was also an active writer of literary criticism. Of particular note is her The Common Reader, a series of essays which reexamines and reappraises the English literary tradition, asking not which books can teach scholars and historians about past cultural eras but, rather, which books from past cultural eras can the non-specialist reader enjoy today, simply for their literary merit, irrespective of what they might teach us about anything, historical or otherwise, apart from what genuine literature is. It is in these pages that Woolf begins to assemble, for the first time, a feminist, or at least female, canon. Here, she identifies, for the first time, Jane Austen and George Eliot as writers of lasting merit, not because they were great women, but because they were great writers, because they advanced the state of the language and contributed to the body of national literature. Woolf’s tendency, here, stands quite at odds with that of more recent scholars, such as Mary Poovey, who have sought to understand the works of these authors in terms of the historical and political conditions confronting women who intended to write.

Though Woolf remains much admired today not only by students of literature but also of gender and sexuality, it is this aspect of her work and thinking which so much scholarly labor has sought to challenge. Gender Studies today, above almost all else, seeks to demonstrate that textual production is invariably bound up with the politics of specific bodies, desires and contexts. And the work of scholars of gender has been to identify and psychoanalytically or “archaeologically” recuperate the very specific ‘traces’ of these lost factors within the work of individual writers – including those of Woolf and Eliot. Though Biagioli and Dear are not scholars of literature and gender but rather science and society, you can nevertheless see how they work would relate to such a project, while the historiography of Boorstin ignores it almost entirely.

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2 Responses to Canon and Contingency

  1. St. Germain says:

    Thank you for this blog. Though I glean far too little from the entries I read, and though many of the entries are too recondite for me, I am instructed and inspired by your commitment.

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