Every week the Partners read articles that spark conversations and reflect their diverse points of view. This week they are discussing, “Enough With the Canon,” from the Atlantic.
I take issue with the concept that the whole idea of canon should be thrown out for intellectual properties based on the fact that they are “an imaginary world.” The argument seems to me to be disingenuous, if not outright intellectually dishonest, and this is a dangerous direction, both academically and organizationally for a number of reasons. If we reject the notion that a creator of a body of work is not relevant because the work is “imaginary,” then we start down the path that no creation or origination rights or responsibilities go with any intellectual property. Also, let us be honest about the fact that once a piece of intellectual property is created, it is most assuredly not imaginary. Whether it is fiction (science, fantasy or otherwise) or fact does not make the property itself any less real. The creator of the piece had an individual, unique idea and brought that to fruition. Just because some pieces of intellectual property are deemed to be “geek culture” and still relegated to the kiddy-table of modern society does not mean that they are any less valuable to our culture and society. Claiming that the extant version of an intellectual property is meaningless debases the entire premise of intellectual property as a whole.
One of the wonders of the sci-fi and fantasy genres is that certain pieces of work become elevated to an art based on their internal consistency, depth and breadth of creating a fully functioning sociological and anthropological (and sometimes anthro-biological) world. If that world can operate fluidly inside of the created space, then it becomes something more than an imaginary idea – it becomes an independent world on its own right. To dismiss the validity of a fully realized and created world by claiming that it is fiction, and that any other way of defining people, places and physics (meta or otherwise) is equally valid from the created form, speaks to a notion of total relativism to any definition of reality or even, dare I say it, truth. It is the rankest of revisionist histories. Without understanding the principles and structure of these worlds, personas, universes, any attempt to recast them risks losing the core fundamentals of what the creators intended.
To be sure, I certainly do not believe that strict adherence to dogma of one individual belief of interpretation of the work is necessary. We do not need to claim heresies or demand ideological purity. But we do need to retain a fidelity to the truth of the underlying structure. For example, it is one thing to claim a belief that the X-Men, as the article points out, had a racialized metaphor in the 1960s, but today’s millennials see in the X-Men just as profoundly a call against homophobic and xenophobic social tendencies because the X-Men are a group of outcasts that are “hated and feared” by normative society. Sure, recasting the world of the X-Men as to whether Xavier was friends with Mystique as a child, or Havok being a young adult 30 years before Cyclops was a teenager fudges with the chronology of the material; but the fact that mutants exist as an outcast group of people based on an innate/inherent/born-this-way state. That is the underlying canon. But this is not just about thematic differences of world-view. Recasting Lord of the Rings, with Aragorn as a tyrant who wanted to keep the One Ring for himself, or claiming that Frodo was descended from Gandalf, would not just be contradictory to the theme, but upend also the physics of Middle-earth and therefore make it something other than the extant world.
But this all boils down the question of how we should value any opinion or belief. Should we acknowledge that every single opinion of any subject is equally important and valid? Do we not rather expect an expert on a subject to speak or critique with greater weight than a casual passerby? We certainly demand as much in most of our discourse; think of those who speak of jihads out of the context of the Koran, for example, or climate change deniers who speak without an expertise or even acquaintance with the scientific processes behind the concept. By a similar token, it is canon that only trained lawyers can practice the law. While certainly every individual has independent thoughts and opinions about art, literature, politics, even history, it is not just acceptable but also appropriate to relegate opinions by those uneducated or unfamiliar with the subject matter to lesser stature. The effort is not to delegitimize the critic as a person, but rather to acknowledge that perhaps by not understanding the context or realities, the critique loses some weight.
If the push to disavow canon is really a charade to make someone feel more vindicated in wanting a character to be different or events to be changed, then let that person write their own unique individual story. Don’t revise history to change existing realities. At the end of the day, you don’t have to like Star Wars on May the 4th, but don’t try to tell me that the Force doesn’t exist a long, long time ago in a galaxy far far away.
As I sit and write this, I find many people are beginning to ask the simple question, “what is wrong today?” As if things have changed or become so complex that even the mighty political elites that have shaped the United States to great power can’t count on their political algebra to elect the anointed candidates. Some like to pretend that we are so well informed with various theories and Google searches that we forget not only who we are, but what we are. What it is to be, or not to be. Our being itself is caught in some false reality between celebrity Facebook posts to isolationist addictions to tune in or just “check out”. Where pain and uncomfortable feelings won’t violate our sacred temples of modern existence. First world problems and privilege being what they are today.
So by little coincidence on the almost 500th anniversary (2017) of the beginning of the Reformation between the Catholic and Protestant faiths, I find myself reading Catholic Bishop Robert Baron’s blog post regarding the fading of the Catholic world immersed in the worlds of Shakespeare’s plays, who died 400 years ago last week. Yes, I do have the complete anthology of plays gathering dust in my office, along with two tattered books of Shakespeare lexicons to understand what the bard’s idea of ‘visage’ is too. Trust me, even the best English dramaturg couldn’t prepare me for the shocking meaning of its 16th century slang. So I found it odd I would come across the acrimony of Canon in the article relaying the angst of Star War’s fans and all things imaginary in this recent Atlantic article. (Yes, I get the irony of my reading habits.)
So I am about to commit, what some would call heresy, for not only agreeing with the article but asking the deeper question of what is our “being?” How did we become so offended by canonical treks down paths paved with streets of money for those entrusted with these sacred texts of pop culture and teen age imagination? Fueled with hormones and faithful adherence to doctrine via disjointed story lines, this angst is a reflection on our modern society. We have accepted an age where personal interaction is through some electronic courtship lived on a holodeck and accept it as sacred personal interaction and communion with a greater good. It belies the idea that our spiritual nature is satiated somehow through these worlds on a level that is as real and present as the lives we lead every day. Our new modern idea of God is one that celebrates this disconnected nature of each of our spirits and, one can argue, gaming platforms bring so many together for positive interaction, but it doesn’t allow for the proper reflection of our life after storylines have ended here on this planet. Only in that reflection can one become more aware of the nature of our being. To transcend personal needs and wants and question the good a society is pursuing. The schisms between the Catholic and Protestants faith wasn’t solely based on Canon but reforms of a Church in need of caring for the individual and what it was to mold an eternal soul. An argument, no matter which side you find yourself, on the moral bearings of an individual and communal church, not the timeline or character changes in a play or movie. One must seek the highest summits to challenge beliefs and thoughts. One must leave the comfortable valley to see the horizon from the peak. While many will argue the trail or the path to take, the summit can allow you to see well beyond the valley you have always known. There we might see beyond what Bishop Barron stated “the mourning of the loss of something that came apart”.
I defend those whose goal it is to protect what is true, beautiful and good, but one must not create a world or structure that detaches us from the reality of eternity. In these arguments lies the idea that we have an eternal nature to us and it is morally necessary to let go of imaginary things. Shakespeare’s characters pointed out the flaws that are eternal in our relationships, governments and helped reflect our character to ourselves. When we forget who we are, we twist in the wind and forget life is not flesh but moral courage to make a difference in our lives here and now, which is a reflection of eternity. To not “check out” no matter the pain or confusion that an imaginary story might sooth for some period of time. Luke Skywalker isn’t real, you are and your family is. If you find yourself confusing the two, where passion and time are equal for both, you have lost the truest sense of yourself. “So what is wrong today?” It is the fading idea that we are the most precious and amazing creations each equally valued in a just society. The more time we take to honor that true reality or virtue, the more it will be reflected in our culture and our love for one another. Our heroes and characters should be reflective of the same beliefs and be held on a shelf for what they are, not what they replace in our own lives. To be. Just to be. Present. Here. With one another in love and celebration of that Holy Communion. That is eternal.
First of all, this was an education in and of itself. As a self-proclaimed outsider to the geekdom, the topic of canon as applied to fictional accounts is fascinating as it reminds me of something with which I’m much more familiar: the law. Hard-core fans of the fantasy and comic genres seem to be demanding something in an imaginary arena that we typically demand in the legal world, namely, stare decisis, which is latin for “to stand by things decided”. This is the basis of all legal precedent. But as I read this article, it struck me that this is a community level issue that has much more to do with the desire for continuity, lack of story conflict and a rejection of deus ex machine at the narrative level inasmuch as it is about the general desire for insular communities at large to define and defend territory against outsiders who may not have the interest of the community at heart.
The running thread in the appeal to canon is to make others “prove it” when showing their bona fides as in-group members to a previously marginalized club. We have seen it in this very presidential election. Oh, so you say you’re a true Conservative?! Prove it! Oh, so you say you’re a true Progressive? Prove it! Previously marginalized communities are very protective of their province once they see the vultures circling. What is seen as bullying by an outsider may be seen simply as a defense mechanism by the community. I think there is a lesson to be learned by both sides. The canonical experts (in any community) could stand to engage in some “big-tent” politicking while newcomers should have a healthy respect for architects.
So whether you’re someone who thinks an Ewok is Asian cooking app or that a Storm Trooper is a FEMA employee with a gun, May the 4th be with you.