I’ve got thoughts, they’re multiplyin’ !
But in order to delve deep into my psyche, I kindly ask that you read this New York Times article (Who Gets to Decide What Belongs in the ‘Canon’ by Wesley Morris) because this post is a direct response to it. And I invite you, dear reader, to prepare a response of your own, because I’m ready to discuss. But more importantly, I’m ready to ramble. But as a polite gesture, I’ll wait until you’ve indulged in the brilliant cultural commentary of a one Mr. Morris before I get into my part-love-letter part-rant about all things canonical.
I’m a regular listener of the witty and insightful New York Times podcast, Still Processing (which I will dedicate an entire post to at some point), where Wesley Morris is a co-host along with fellow NYT writer, Jenna Wortham, and to see his byline on such a thought-provoking article fills me with joy.
He opens with the challenging notion that the “canon” is simply glorification for the sake of artistic preservation and, already, I was hooked.
And he’s right, when something becomes canonical, it becomes immortal in its own way. He also talks about how the concept of “canon” has shifted from a concept to a descriptor of what is accepted and true versus what is akin to artistic heresy. Morris delves into the idea that while a canon is something to be proud of there is, without a doubt, silencing that occurs to push forward any canonical agenda – often at the expense of minorities.
“Our mutual hypersensitivities might have yanked us away from enlightening, crucial — and fun — cultural detective work (close reading, unpacking, interpreting) and turned us into beat cops always on patrol, arresting anything that rankles.”
I’m touched (because it’s a wonderful, vulnerable thing for writing to evoke feeling) by his use of the verb “rankle,” here. In the Oxford English Dictionary, it is described as the act of “fester[ing], esp. to a degree that causes pain.” It’s not a word that settles easily on the tongue, either – it doesn’t even feel like it belongs in your mouth when you say it. The reason I’m so fixated on this one word is because it is deliberate. It sounds like handcuffs in pursuit of hasty arrest and it shows that there has never been a thing more beautiful than the marriage of diction and subtext.
As he continues to elaborate on this thread of observing criticism of the canon, he subtly makes reference to the undeniable link between fandom, spectatorship, and possession. It never dawned on me until now that fandom is essentially staking a claim on a particular cultural moment and how that has evolved over the current media revolution we’re experiencing is definitely something to note when examining the canon.
Not to mention, having studied white, male authorship in literature (and art, really) that Harold Bloom defends as canon and simultaneously being a black kid that left the theatre the opening night of Black Panther with an indescribable joy in my lungs, I’m so glad that these experiences are being explored side-by-side.
We cannot, and we should not, separate the desire and hunger for representation akin to that in Marvel’s Black Panther from the exclusion of a canon established by and for the majority.
And lastly, wow, I just love the circularity of this article. From starting off with the notion of canon as a form of defending the art we love, Morris returns to this idea by addressing the “kind of militancy from thinkers (and fans) who’ve rarely been allowed in.” It’s worth sharing the entire final passage because it’s much more effective as a whole.
“The intolerance of the traditional gatekeepers might have spurred a kind of militancy from thinkers (and fans) who’ve rarely been allowed in. Bloom’s literary paradise is long lost, and now history compels us to defend Wakanda’s. But that leaves the contested art in an equally perilous spot: not art at all, really, but territory.”
He ascends towards this final point, heavy with colonial meaning in, and leaves the reader to deal with every sentiment he has evoked in them throughout the article and I couldn’t be happier.
Wesley Morris writes not to tell us how to feel but to help us deal with what we’re feeling when he writes what is true.