Built to Last

One of the few blog discussions that I followed pretty closely during my blog-vacation was the spiralling conversation that came out of initial reactions to The Valve. It drew a number of comments from me at various sites, and I don’t want to relive most of them, but one supplemental point that came out I thought was of continuing interest. George Williams criticized the idea of the “time-tested” work of literature, the proposition that the canon consists of works which achieve sufficient universality and depth of meaning that they continue to have value long after the historical moment in which they were initially published.

I agreed (and still agree) that this understanding of literary value is pretty silly. Demonstrably, empirically, it’s not how canons get built or literary value gets appraised over time. There’s more to it, though. Part of my response to that entry was that you shouldn’t just treat Enlightenment-derived concepts of the universal human subject as “mere” constructions: it’s possible that they’ve actually created universalities that are real for all that they are also historical.

One of the consequences of that might be that modern literary canons are built around ideas of temporality and universality which are not “real” but neither are they really false–that we may be selecting for works that we read as having “timelessness” or works which seek to achieve or communicate that. Doesn’t mean that literary works survive the “test of time” naturally, in some kind of cultural selection process.

There’s a more modest idea that comes to me as a result of that proposition, maybe one that a broader range of literary and textual critics could accept. We talk about metaphor, rhyme, and so on as intrinsic technical attributes that literary or cultural works may possess. Is it possible to add “plasticity” to that list? That some works have, in largely technical terms, more interpretative fluidity, less temporal grounding in a specific time and place, less dense referentiality or embeddedness in existing genres and discourses? All literary and cultural work has a history and exists in history, and I think you always need to know a lot about context to read and understand anything well. But “Freakazoid”, let’s say, seems to me to be much less plastic than your average “Road Runner” cartoon.

I’m not saying that plasticity is always something better: a text with a great deal of it might be highly generic and formless. I’m very aware that readers misattribute plasticity to some texts by reading them in fairly superficial or ignorant ways, by overlooking material which is densely alien or unfamiliar in its historicity. I’m aware that talking about plasticity and fixed referentiality could easily become a kind of deferral of the modernism/postmodernism divide. But it seems to me that there really are texts which travel farther in space and time than others, and that this is partly enabled by something intrisic to the texts themselves.

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3 Responses to Built to Last

  1. Ayjay says:

    This is a hugely important topic but, as Tim says, hard to talk about. The problems begin with the kind of social-constructionism-on-the-cheap that far too many people traffic in: you know, the people who say that if our culture prefers Shakespeare there might be another culture that would find The Love Boat the height of aesthetic achievement if they ever saw it, because their culture is differently constructed. (And in future generations in the West might see The Love Boat as our own cultural high point.) What I think this school of thought — if we can dignify it with such a name — fails to understand is that any serious historicism or social constructionism must reckon with the fact that if ideas are *socially* constructed, societies are *materially* constructed. That is, in order to thrive, in order to keep people healthy and content, societies must reckon with their physical environments in complex ways. Some physical environments are easier to thrive in than other, to be sure, but all you have to do is read a book like Diamond’s *Guns, Germs, and Steel* to realize that certain sets of environmental challenges repeat themselves across widely dispersed geographical areas. The challenges of material life on this particular planet, for this particular species, are such that meeting them builds similar habits of mind in widely varying cultures. So I think you could make *a social constructionist case*, not a universalist or Arnoldian-humanist case, that any human culture capable of understanding Shakespeare and The Love Boat would always find Shakespeare superior. I’m not especially interested in making that case, but it could be made.

    In short, the problem with cultural-materialist explanations of art and culture is that they are rarely materialist *enough* — they are rarely grounded in attention to the physical environments that all human beings share and that do a lot to shape the forms of cultures. What Tim is grasping for in his post is perhaps offered by Bakhtin, who in one of his last essays contends that Shakespeare remains great not because he is *less* historically grounded than other writers, but because his work appropriates *more* deeply and richly a range of expressive cultural forms. Embedded in Shakespeare’s plays, then, are vast reservoirs of cultural meaning that can be excavated and reappropriated by future generations of readers and playgoers as their cultures re-enact scenes from earlier cultural events. This is something like the social-constructionst case for ongoing cultural relevance that I referred to above. It’s not transcendental at all.

    (BTW, I find a similar lack of truly historical thinking in, for example, Steven Johnson’s new *Everything Bad is Good For You*, in which challenges people who say that book culture is superior to electronic culture. He seems to especially proud of one rhetorical flourish because he repeats it on his website as well as in excerpts of the book: he imagines what cultural conservatives would be saying if electronic culture had *preceded* print culture, and thinks that by parodying them he has refuted them. The problem is that Johnson fails to understand that electronic culture *could not have* preceded print culture, that it is in fact a *product* of print culture. That Gutenberg preceded Turing is not merely accidental.)

  2. Ayjay says:

    (Didn’t realize how Holbovian that comment was until I posted it. Yikes.)

  3. Sean McCann says:

    I think it’s actually long since been added to the list–in the classic definition (Eco, most famously, I think) of the classic as a work that tolerates countless interpretations.

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