Canon: fences and trampolines

I’ve just spent a thoroughly enjoyable day at the first Jakarta International Literary Festival. I sat in on two Symposiums*: The Southern Common Themes Dilemma, moderated by Nukila Aman and featuring Legodile Seganabeng, Sharlene Teo, Intan Paramaditha, and Nukila Aman; and The Need for a Southern Canon, moderated by Stephanos Stephanides and featuring Ramon Guillermo, Hilmar Farid and Adania Shibli.

The atmosphere was friendly and inclusive, even if the themes were challenging, and the presentations were rich and thought-provoking.

Whose canon?

The idea of canon – the body of texts regarded as ‘core’ or ‘important’ – was central to the discussion:

  • Is a Southern Canon (in opposition to the Western one) even possible?
  • If possible, is it desirable?
  • Who shapes the canon?
  • Who gains from the canon, and who loses out?
  • What does a canon enable?
  • What are its dangers, and who might it exclude?

Who sets up the library of world literature?

Intan Paramaditha

Canon as emergent network

Ramon Guillermo shared some interesting research about networks of production and reception of South-East Asian literature between major cities, and I think this idea is fruitful with respect to the canon itself: canon as a dynamic network of texts and readers. Books gain prominence (‘become more canonical’) in the network through connection to readers and other books. Readers and writers draw themselves into the conversation by latching onto books, pulling themselves in and re-configuring the network as they go by drawing new connections between books and readers – often by the simple act of saying “you should read this – it’s great.”

No-one makes the canon. We can take a snapshot of it in time, but we can’t freeze it or control it (though people have tried, even succeeded – for a while).

Canon as fence

From the edge of the network, the canon looks like a fence. Connections – or rather, connections involving you – are few and tentative. It’s hard to be heard. There may even be influential voices talking over you, directing attention elsewhere, unpicking your connections.

There isn’t a way to ‘fix’ these voices – the very fact of their being so wrong from where we’re standing means that they don’t matter. The answer to being on the edge of the network is to strengthen the parts of the network that matter to you – your conversations, your books… talk to the people who get it, and not worry about the rest. If your contribution resonates – if it speaks to enough books and people in the net – it will route itself around points of resistance (like packet-switched data), tie you closer into the network and – either quickly, or slowly (it may be that someone else makes the connections for you after you’ve died in obscurity) – you’ll find yourself somewhere in the canon.** Other people may not like you being there, but that’s fine – it’s not for them (and they’re probably not for you).

It’s not for you.

Seth Godin***

Canon as trampoline

If the canon is simply the most visible part of the network of readers and books (and writers), its existence is inevitable for as long as we read and talk about books.

Stephanos Stephanides suggested that the advantage of a canon is that it gives us something to point at – a way of seeing the network, of drawing attention to how it operates that allows us to critique and deconstruct it.

He’s right: this is canon as trampoline, a net(of)work we jump on and push against, launching ourselves to places we wouldn’t – couldn’t – go in its absence. The harder we jump – diving head-first into what we love, stomping two-footed on what we object to – the further we fly.

Foundation. Launchpad. Cannon.

*The plural for this may be symposia, but it sounds ridiculous

**It’s worth remembering, though, that the canon excludes almost everyone – including most of those at the center

***Seth Godin has a lot of good stuff to say about getting books and ideas into the world.

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