Literary Canons Revisited. An Evangelistic Investigation of the Future of the Literary Canon: Network Society and Amazon.com, Hegemony and Counterhegemony, and the Future.
[This paper has been written for a university course in literary theory in 2008.]
If one asked a literary critic today what they thought of the best seller “XYZ”, chances are that they would tell one that it is a momentary hype that will never last beyond the end of the literary season. It could come as a surprise then that the best sellers stays on the top-seller list for longer. The critic, however, will not change their mind – because they know best. And this is still how popular fiction is judged – book reviews are written by professionals with degrees in literary history and theory whose job is to read with the “passion” of a cynic and with the “liberalism” of a critic. With the wide spread of Web 2.0 technologies the critical world is changing. This paper is an evangelistic prediction of the future canonization process, an outlook to the years when Web 2.0 technologies will be utilized to their fullest, extending hand to the next generation of social networks and network societies. It is a contention of this paper that the currently established notion of a canon, canonization and canonizers imposes a hegemonic grip on literary values and aesthetic judgements. The power of social media and networks is a counterhegemonic strike with the availability of technology not necessarily targeted at imposing a new mode for canonization but simply suggesting that the Canon is important only to the literary historian or theorist (in the same way as a literary history is of importance only to them; Johnstone, 1992).
To grasp the importance of canonization as a process and its implications for the aesthetic experience of the reader, it is essential to: 1) outline what is being understood by “canon” and to summarize the current process of canonization; 2) analyze the hierarchy in today’s literary reality with respect to the canonization process; 3) examine the current technological advances and the structure of the network societies and to predict their future implications to the process of canonization; and 4) evaluate the prediction for this future outcome and its longevity.
1. Harold Bloom, The Canon and The Literary … “Someone” – Briefly
The idea of the canon as a collection of books with artistic merit is an indication for the need to make a selection of all the available “things” to read. Bloom is perhaps mostly associated with the idea of the Western Canon (Bloom, 1994) and idea of a literary canon as a whole. Pointing out that it is impossible for anyone today to read all that is available, it becomes necessary to establish certain criteria for the selection. Although there may well be personal factors, there is, according to Bloom, an overarching reason for the reading of one work of literary art over another by everyone. The importance of the canon, Bloom underlines, is not related to the religious meaning of “canon” but rather to the literary Art of Memory. Taking a bit of an elitist stand, Blook argues that “aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those who are incapable of grasping its sensations and perceptions” (p. 17). As such, it relies on aesthetics because “I urge a stubborn resistance whose single aim is to preserve poetry as fully and purely as possible” (p. 18).
Following Blooms ominous predictions, this paper will address some of the questions that the Canon poses:
The Canon […] has become a choice among texts struggling with one another for survival, whether you interpret the choice as being made by dominant social groups, institutions of education, traditions of criticism, or, as I do, by late-coming authors who feel themselves chosen by particular ancestral figures. Some recent partisans of what regards itself as academic radicalism go so far as to suggest that works join the Canon because of successful advertising and propaganda campaigns. The compeers of these skeptics sometimes go farther and question even Shakespeare, whose eminence seems to them something of an imposition. If you worship the composite god of historical process, you are fated to deny Shakespeare his palpable aesthetic supremacy, the really scandalous originality of his plays. (p. 20)
At this point, the paper will stop looking into the past. The future forms of canonization and concepts will be covered in greater detail to find out if literary canons as known today would become a second case of literary history (see Johnston, 1992).
2. Networks and the Spread of Information – the Power of the Masses
The power of technology today (although reaching only a portion of the available population) is what provides the space for innovation. It is not a question of what a particular innovation was innovated for but what the human creativity can innovate further with this innovation. It is the contention of this paper that the greater networks and information connectivity in the social space, the greater the power of the masses for transmission and creation of information – be it about the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other world.
The innovations in terms of technologies can be summarized in several core processes: 1)the innovations that allow the spread of accessibility to internet and online buying, 2)the innovations that smart marketing trying to sell did not foresee, and most importantly 3)innovations based on the development of creative solutions for establishing connections between users. Each one needs elaboration.
With the invention of the internet for the purpose of spreading information in a closed environment, the idea of selling was not on the forefront. As soon as the spread of the “net” in the everyday life, however, the comfort and potential of advertising and commerce was established. Driving the development of secure online payments as alternatives to TV infomercial home shopping channels and order-by-catalogue, the industry flourished offering all kinds of goods and services (the improvement in postal services further facilitated the process of integration of online commerce). The ultimate goal of technological communication and information development is, according to Castells (2007), “the battle over the minds of people” (p. 238). What Castells, however, clarifies further is that this battle is no longer just between the state (an institution) which is traditionally the main site of power but now includes cultural industries and business media, and, importantly, the individual/the citizen. In this battle, the spread of information is what makes commerce, public ratings and the process of canonization most statistically objective.
The mass media system has been the main channel of communication between the political system and its citizens (Castells, 2007). Radio, TV and the press have dominated the exchange of information and the formation of information shaping the face of the market – i.e. holding the power (although Castells also admits that there are individual actors that exercise power over the media). What has been observed with the development and spread of the internet, however, is a new type of an audience. The concept of an audience has change from that of a passive audience to an active now where the media have an internal control but the audience is gaining more and more power by the choice they have – the audience decides about the source of information and this is why the media has to win the audience.
In summary, Castells argues that “the media are not the holders of power, but they constitute by and large the space where power is decided” (p. 242). Exploring the new network, he discusses the distribution of the internet, mobile communication, digital media and a number of social media tools that lead to the development of horizontal networks of information spread. The network society has the strength of being driven by people, having the information created and delivered by the audiences, transforming the user into a provider of information. Although an old technology, first put to use in 1969, the internet is reaching more and more users which now exceeds 1 billion (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2006). The systems of connecting people are not simply through the interface of the computer today but include short messages (SMS) and multimedia messages (MMS) via cell phones; access to blogs, vlogs, and podcasts on mobile devices; file sharing and peer-to-peer (p2p) networks and other social media. Thanks to the availability of these communications, individual communication acquires a personal character. This process has been coined “self-communication” (see Castells, 2007) to refer to the ability of an individual user to collect information relevant to them and to spread this information (in the same way as a big media network would) and to target its specific audience.
It is perfectly valid assumption, however, that this non-media information is not as precise in its content and not as reliable as the information coming from proof sources. The social media information transfer, however, relies (similar to the model Wikipedia employs) on the self-correction powers of the community: unreliable information is labeled as such, misguiding sources are taken with the grain of salt and plain wrong information is removed within seconds of its availability (ruining the reputation of the person who posts it) – quality control. The instantaneous distribution of information on the internet often relies on a push type of technology, RSS, which allows for a user to subscribe and have the information “pushed” to them as soon as it is posted online. Thus, even if the information is posted by mistake, and pulled immediately, it still reaches the users. And the power of the online community is its ability to aggregate information and sieve out questionable bits.
This new surge of alternative means of communication (which are also cheaper) necessitates changes in the way media networks distribute information. If people are able to sort out their own bits of important information and to aggregate the information to extract the essential bits (even if coming from contradictory sources), it is necessary to change the model of communication and, perhaps even more importantly, the values and norms attached to the bits of information and to the concept of reliability. It appears, however, that the new model will necessitate a shift from simply “availability” to “service”. An illustration of the need for a transition are a couple of recent iPhone applications – one of them written by an independent programmer and one by a retailer who is looking into new ways of reaching the clients.
The app SnapTell is an example of a memo/note-taking application giving the user the opportunity to take a picture of the cover of a book. The picture is then send to the servers of the company and is analyzed by software that (in less than 30 seconds) sends back the information to the user with the name of the book, the online price at various locations, an automatic search on google for prices and review, wikipedia articles, ebay search and others (see Appendix 1 for a screenshot). This immediate connection to online sources of information opens new doors for a buyer not only because of the potentially better price but also because of the opportunity to read user reviews, editorial reviews, author information, and many other pieces of information. This allows a user to decide before purchasing if it is worth it based on the reviews. The application that Amazon.com developed (the application is currently available only to US users) extends these features by making it possible to take a picture of any object and if not in their database, the user is notified as soon as the item becomes available. Other mobile platforms (the Android mobile phone operating system developed by Google) allow for scanning of barcodes (thanks to in-built cameras) and software reads the barcodes to the similar results.
The importance of such progress lies in the ability of the user to sieve out information better. The availability of information is measurable in terms of seconds and not in terms of years. On the longer run, this can be detrimental to physical stores which rely on the client’s lack of information about the competition (both in terms of price and, more importantly, in terms of quality and choice). Fundamentally, a remedy to the demise of the brick-and-mortar would be change of focus of what is being offered. Commercially, a bookstore may offer the opportunity to buy a book. However, unless one is looking for a specific book in mind, a buyer would rely on several heuristics: 1) choosing a book based on familiarity with the author’s other works, 2) choosing a book based on a recommendation (from a friend, relative, a book seller, a literary critic, etc.), or 3) choosing a book at random (which is further influenced by the positioning of the book on the shelves, cover design, price point, and others). These heuristics are all replaceable by the more efficient (and often more economic) online shopping approach. Thus, social networking, mass self-information and the new shopping experiences push the “old” way of shopping to modification, necessitating focus on service and on one-to-one interaction (at an affordable price): the power is in the masses.
3. Today’s Book Review and Canonization
The process of literature canonization can be particularly influenced by the empowerment of the masses. The essence of the canon is in its aesthetic appeal and value. Through the power of the new media and the network society, aggregation and mass-evaluation of literary works is possible. Specifically, a platform for this aggregation and public evaluation is provided through the multiple evaluations which are aggregated based on a common aesthetic understanding.
There are numerous advantages of the move towards internet in relation to works of literature. Banks (2004) points out as one of the most important factors is the searchability online. Many factors, among others fear of piracy, have contributed towards the lagging behind of making books available online despite the urge that has been observed in newspaper- and magazine-publishing, where online publications have become quite common. There is a trend, however, moving away from this reality (Google Book Search is currently driving this industry). On the practical level, this allows users to have access to a number of pages or even chapters and to evaluate the book before purchasing. Amazon.com launched a service on October 23, 2003 (Banks, 2004) for searching the entire text of books as well as “Search Inside the Book” feature. Revealing what is hidden between the cover combined with the opportunity for users to make decisions based on recommendations from other readers makes the process of buying much more focused. An indication of the facilitation of the process of selection of reading material is the reported increase by 9% in the number of sales for books with “Search Inside the Book” feature in the first year (Banks, 2004).
Arguably, this does not guarantee that the literary work is necessarily of high aesthetic quality and worthy of canonization. Linkov and colleagues (Linkov, LaPorte, Lovalekar, & Dodani, 2005) present the case of peer review in the medical sciences and the limitations of that process and propose that Amazon.com’s model is an alternative solution:
In Amazon.com, reviews have been divided into following categories: editorial reviewers (those associated with Amazon.com), customer, and spotlight reviewers. A reviewer becomes a spotlight reviewer by a form of popularity test. At the end of each posted review, readers are asked to vote, “Was this content helpful to you?” Reviewers who receive a sufficient number of “yes” votes are promoted to the category of spotlight reviewer and their reviews are given prominence. Thus, Amazon.com is reinforcing reviewers to provide helpful information in their feedback. Whereas traditional peer review process is only assessing the quality of material, Amazon.com system makes inferences about the quality of both materials and the reviewers themselves. We have suggested that Amazon.com system could be used in the area of quality control of materials on the Internet, offering an attractive alternative to peer review mechanisms. (p. 876)
The authors further quote the estimated cost of traditional peer review of an article between US$400 and US$1,600. Alternatively, the Amazon.com model comes for free and in fact is part of the purchasing process.
A problem associated with the canonization process based on recommendations of what others have liked and purchased and what is being recommended to reader is the inflation which may occur (is occurring?) because of these two factors. If a reader is recommended a book based on what they have liked in the past and what others (who have liked the same things in the past) have purchased (and liked now), it is much more likely that the reader will like the recommendation and leave a positive review which will be then recommended to someone else – a process of inflation of the positivism in reviews. This cycle of perpetual improvement of the recommendations has the potential to create various niches and to lead to an exceptionally customized and narrowed down canon. This transforms the model of the reviews themselves from not merely comparatively quantitative anchors between positive and negative aspects but comparatively qualitative anchors between one positive aspect and another positive aspect (defying to a certain extend the functionality and existence of negative reviews).
Perhaps as a bit of an alleviating remedy, one can argue that the system proposed by Amazon.com is taking care of some aspects of this low-level canonization. The argument is that although any book buyer can leave a review, not necessarily every reviewer will take their time to do that and each review is further reviewer by numerous potential buyers who can rate the usefulness of the reviews themselves. This framework encourages reviewers to be as precise and informative as possible, to provide objective judgements and to contribute to the community because of the contribution itself. The lack of professional incentive is perhaps an argument for the advantage of this system: a critical evaluation is done not for the sake of evaluation but for the sake of helping someone choose; not for the sake of compiling a list for posterity based on singular aesthetics but for the sake of a buyer here and now (one can, of course, argue that this commercial mindset is not the most ideal framework for aesthetic judgements).
There is one big problem associated with this narrowed down selection of positivism. Joanne Kaufman (2008) very recently addressed this issues in a rant review over the lack of high-minded ideas in book groups. She describes the case of a woman who is invited to join a book club only to find out that it would be difficult for her to make the members look beyond “Oprah Winfrey’s picks”. Her interest in the literary classics and the lack of such in her co-members could be a glimpse into the future of literary canonization. Based on recommendations and online reviews, the inability to sieve through intellectually and aesthetically superior works of literature may cause degradation of the quality associated with the canon.
In this context, it is important to look into the question: is the canon based on popular aesthetics or on intellectually superior quality? If the average, aggregated evaluation of aesthetic understanding of the popular masses is what determines the canon, then basic statistics would be enough to determine it. If, however, the canon needs to be based on intellectually superior qualities, then there would be no guarantee that the messages in the canonized literary works will transcend the pages to the minds of the average readers – which would, to a large extend, defy the idea of a canon as “something everyone should read”. Is the canon necessary for educational purposes or for collective memory? Is it for ideological information-transmission, or for propaganda empowerment (empowerment of the powerful or empowerment of the weak?)? Intellectual pull vs. intellectual suppression!
4. Counterhegemonies and other Hegemonies
Discussions about the power of institutions and a critique towards that power have been part of the art-theory discourse for almost a century with the critical analysis by Duchamps of the institutional approach to the label “art” for anything that is put in the right context (i.e. that of an art museum). The hegemony established by this institutional philosophy is in parallel with the current form of canonization: the critique of literature suggests that a work of art, a great canon, an aesthetically pleasing work of literary art is one that the critics have christened.
The power of Amazon.com to monopolize the market and with this the source of rating systems can be particularly influential in the canonization process. The availability of customer control over what is “good” and what is not has the potential to transform the model of canonization. If the canon has been determined by literary critics before, based on the hegemonic dominance of the power to say “this is an aesthetically good book and should be read”, this does not need be the case any longer. Now the customer has the power to decide what is good and what is not – the counterhegemony is the movement away from the job of the literary critic.
There is a question associated with this situation, however: is it the case that thanks to the availability of networks and the platform for the mass-canonization we have a network-canonization today (and not before) or is the network-canonization what has been going on along with the canonization from the critics all along (with the exception that only the critics had strong enough a voice to be heard in the wider world)? For example, Shakespeare’s work has been canonized and it still is read and bought by a large number of people. Is this popularity of Shakespeare’s works due to the fact that the works have been canonized by literary scholars or is it because it is appreciated by the vast majority of readers? In either of the two cases, a hegemonic framework is more likely to explain this popularity rather than a counterhegemonic framework (which would read along the lines of non-conformism and avoidance to read Shakespeare). What is interesting about the case of Shakespeare is how the new model is reflected.
Following a somewhat unplanned process of approaching the search for “Shakespeare” on Amazon.com as a casual buyer of his work (i.e. someone who does not look for a specific edition, or a specific work), a user lands (as of 14th Dec. 2008, 12:29 am Central European Time) on an unabridged deluxe leather-bound edition of Shakespeare’s complete works. The number of available reviews is not extremely big (only 65) considering the publication date of 1990) and the ratings are not overwhelmingly high with only half being as high as 5 stars (31 reviews with 5 stars, 13 reviews with 4 stars, 5 reviews with 3 stars, 6 reviews with 2 stars and 10 reviews with 1 star). These results, however, seem to be explained with the first review itself submitted by Brian Kendig:
I am not going to comment as so many have on the quality of the content of this book. When dealing with a writer like Shakespeare, it is unnecessary to critique his writing, because nobody would be looking at his Complete Works if they didn’t know if they liked his writing. However, I will try to give opinions that may help others decide whether or not to buy this volue of Shakespeare as opposed to another collection.
The reviewer (full review is available in Appendix 2) provides several points in his review that have nothing to do with the actual text (the binding, the thickness of the paper and the marginalia) and addresses only 1 aspect that is related to the text but has to do with the editorial information rather than with the literary work itself (according to the reviewer, there is no information about which of the conflicting manuscripts of King Lear has been used in this edition).
The discussion around Shakespeare has been addressed by Bloom himself (1994) as an important determinant of what constitutes a canonical work and how, perhaps, the question of the public vs. critics’ contribution to its popularity can be disentangled:
If it is arbitrary that Shakespeare centers the Canon, then [the School of Resentment] need to show why the dominant social class selected him rather than, say, Ben Jonson, for that arbitrary role. Or if history and not the ruling circles exalted Shakespeare, what was it in Shakespeare that so captivated the mighty Demiurge, economic and social history? Clearly this line of inquiry begins to border on the fantastic: how much simpler to admit that there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever. Originality is the great scandal that resentment cannot accommodate, and Shakespeare remains the most original writer we will ever know. (p. 25)
This paper looked into several aspects of canonization of literary works: 1) the old way of canonization and 2) the criteria behind such a selection as outlined by Bloom (and as still relevant for the future), 3) the hierarchy of the literary canonizers of the past (the hegemonic grip of the literary critic) and 4) the future development of empowerment of the network society. Canonization refers to the evaluation of the aesthetic qualities of a literary creation and its proclamation as educationally viable and worthy of reading entity. It is not a question of the artist’s background or their political, ideological or ethnic background but rather the aesthetic excellence and value of their work – this Bloom emphasizes explicitly and repeatedly.
Several questions come out from such an outlined: is it necessary (and possible) for a canonized literary fiction to remain in the canon forever and if not forever, for how long does it remain there; who are the canonizers and why are they worthy of such a function; and how is this going to look in the future when the network society takes a firmer grip of its own needs?
The first question is to remain unanswered (indefinitely?). The remaining questions, however, can be approached from the angle of literary theory, mass-media communication and a bit of evangelism. This paper outlined the hierarchy in which the top is occupied by the canonizer – the one that tells a reader what is good to read. If this approach is parallel to the institutional approach in art history, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to defends its future theoretically. A more pragmatic solution would be a simple analysis of the acceptance of such a framework.
It has been summarized in this paper how this framework is about to change. The availability of certain technologies allows for a new approach to canonization centered around connectivity. In the past, it was common to go to the bookstore and browse through the available titled. One used to search for a book by the author (if one knew something of them already), or maybe based on a review one has read in the paper, or following the “new” list, or even listening to a recommendation of a friend. The narrow circle of this social area of recommendations, marketing and elitists, although still centered around aesthetic values, is rather flat and uni-directional.
With the development of online resources, the users have much richer access to what is being published. Furthermore, it is not simply the fact that the readers now have bookshops with bigger variety of books than any other library of physical bookstore, but the user also has access to reviews, second-hand options and online previews. The online platforms gives the chance to anyone to be an equal partner in the evaluation for relevance of any literary work, transforming the average reader (with a bit of enthusiasm) in a literary critic. The power of the aesthetic judgement is shifted to the hands of the daily purchaser/the casual reader reinventing the hierarchy of canonization into a flattened horizontal circular structure.
As with any model, this also has its limitations. For one, a model based purely on recommendations (which are calculated based on the positive ratings, past purchasing history and liking of a particular book) is likely to be biased towards the positive extreme. Qualitatively, however, this issue is perhaps taken care of when, idealistically, the review process will no longer be about “good” and “bad” but about “good for…” and “good for …”. This positivism is still rooted in the aesthetic judgement – the collective aesthetic judgement – opening niches and closing highways. But just as with a bottle-neck – a movement in a niche is much more vigorous and charged than aimless wandering in a field of corn. In the longer run, what one needs be concerned with is, as Bloom himself points out, individual rather than societal aesthetics.
Banks, M. A. (2004). Amazon.com opens the books. Online, March-April. 30-33.
Bloom, H. (1994). The Western Canon: The books and school of the ages. FL, USA: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Castells, M. (2007). Communication, power, and counter-power in the network society. International Journal of Communication, 1, 238-266.
Johnstone, R. (1992). The impossible genre: Reading comprehensive literary history. PMLA, 107, 26-37.
Kaufman, J. (2008). Fought over any good books lately? The New York Times, December 7. Retrieved Dec. 8th, 2008 from <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/07/fashion/07clubs.html>
Linkov, F., LaPorte, R., Lovalekar, M., & Dodani, S. (2005). Web quality control for lectures: Supercourse and Amazon.com. Croatian Medical Journal, 46, 875-878.
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2006). Maturing Internet news audience – broader than deeper: Online papers modestly boost newspaper readership. Pew Research Center Biennial News Consumption Survey. Retrieved Dec. 4th, 2008 from <http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=282>
After taking a picture of the cover of the book, it takes 7 seconds to get the result:
The user is given the option to purchase the book online from several platforms:
And furthermore, a user is able to share the findings of this book with other people (i.e. make a recommendation):
Full review submitted by Brian Kendig (California) on January 7, 2000.
I am not going to comment as so many have on the quality of the content of this book. When dealing with a writer like Shakespeare, it is unnecessary to critique his writing, because nobody would be looking at his Complete Works if they didn’t know if they liked his writing. However, I will try to give opinions that may help others decide whether or not to buy this volume of Shakespeare as opposed to another collection.
The binding, as some have said, is not of the highest quality, it seems. My copy is completely new (as evidenced by the “gilding” on the pages still sticking in places), yet there are significant creases where the book opens.
The thickness of the paper, which some have claimed is lacking, to me seems quite adequate, especially for a tome of this magnitude. I have recently been using extensively The Norton Anthology of American Literature, whose pages are as thin as tissue paper, so my basis of comparison may be off.
The text itself claims to be unabridged. However, for texts such as King Lear, where at least two conflicting manuscripts exist, the editors give no information as to what choices they themselves made regarding the text. Text that in other editions is noted as having been adjusted by editors is in this edition laid out as truth, with no indication whatsoever. If you are interested in this sort of thing, I would recommend the individual plays published by The New Folger Library, which have excellent editorial markings.
Another problem, in my opinion, is marginalia. This volume contains none, which makes it tremendously difficult if one intends to use this book as reading. Shakespeare is difficult reading even with textual notes, and without borders on impossibility. I’m not sure how easy it is to include extensive footnotes in an anthology like this, but little things like the accents to show when the stress in certain words (e.g. obliged) falls on the last syllable would be nice. For the individual plays with great notes, again I recommend the Folger Library editions.
I would add that the things I have critiqued here are not all things that might matter to another reader. I present them as my feelings, so take with a grain of salt.