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.