The Production of Canon: A Pointless Argument?

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An amusing discussion took place last week in one of my classes (the SF/utopia one).  We were talking about Tom Moylan’s Scrapes of Untainted Sky and Luckhurst’s Science Fiction and how Luckhurst’s one-page claim about the awful practice of canon production in key theoretical texts (Suvin’s Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Carl Freedman’s Critical Theory and Science Fiction, and Moylan’s book) sets itself up as a contradiction.  For Luckhurst (and this is based on reading one page from his book), the aforementioned authors are participating in political games:  Suvin in a game of the literary elite; Freedman in an equally problematic project; and Moylan in utopian readings of SF.  He views these authors as having agendas that “reflect back the ‘reader-critic’s cherished political dispositions'” (9) and argues that SF studies needs to be open to examinations and discussions of Pulp Era and Golden Age SF.  Since even Luckhurst is participating in canon production–even though he is attempting to open up the critical framework of SF studies to more texts than Suvin and others have been willing to address–the contradiction should be readily apparent.

Luckhurst’s solution is a good one (in my opinion).  Since I’ve already written about the inside vs. the outside in SF criticism, it seems prudent to point out that political agendas play a crucial role in forming theoretical and critical texts.  It also seems prudent to suggest that one can’t escape from political readings.  But can one escape from the project of canon production?

That is the question that I am concerned with here (and one that I was concerned with during
class).  Part of our discussion centered on the problem of canon production and the naive assumption made by Luckhurst that his personal vision of SF criticism was somehow apolitical (or at least non-ideological in a canonical sense).  The problem, obviously, is that Luckhurst isn’t removing himself from the system of canon production.  Instead, he’s as much a part of it as everyone else.  All critical texts, thus, are participating in the canonical system, even if the author’s intent is to do otherwise.  When you select texts, you are producing a canon, since no matter what you do, you are excluding some texts for one reason or another.  Even if you acknowledge that space prevents you from talking about everything, you’re still making a decision on which texts you’ll talk about, and, thus, an assessment of their quality.

The inescapability of canon production, however, is where I suddenly find myself asking “why.”  Why are we talking about canon production at all if nothing you do can be anti-canon in a purist sense?  Nothing a critic produces can be outside of the system, which suggests to me that talking about how an author is participating in it is similar to talking about how your neighbor breathes every day–they’re both natural features of a system of existence (one tied to life and one tied to the literary critical form).  It seems to me that the only relevant time to talk about the production of canon is when one is personally invested in an ideological/political project related to canon, such as might be said of someone like Harold Bloom or the detestable E. D. Hirsch (whose “cultural literacy” is one of the most problematic canonical forms next to the literary canon).  Beyond those figures, however, talking about canon is, as I just said, like talking about breathing; if your next door neighbor is breathing special gas to become a super mutant to take over the world, then maybe you should pay attention and have a discussion–most likely, however, your neighbor is just suffering from lung cancer.

To put it another way:  unless canon is being used to exclude for political, rather than critical, reasons (i.e. SF isn’t in my canon because it’s not real literature), we shouldn’t be talking about it.  Argue about the exclusions, but don’t bother talking about how the production of canon is a problem that needs to be addressed.  Sometimes talking about canon is pointless (read:  without purpose or meaning).  We need to move beyond canon and start asking why we make the selections we make, why others make them, and what the rationale behind all forms of inclusion and exclusion offer us.  Sometimes we select texts to talk about because there is a relationship we want others to see, and as the “others,” we should be willing to set aside the pointless discussions and engage the material (critical or otherwise) on its own terms (just, as I said yesterday, as we should do when producing critical works on SF).

But what do you think about canon production?  Do you agree with me here or do you disagree?  Let me know in the comments.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

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