Category Archives: classics

Friends and Enemies of the Canon – Roy Turner

Roy Turner
Roy Turner

“The philistine is shocked by the contemporary, for the latter simply seems to deny quality, not only to the canonical works themselves (John Cage: “Beethoven is shit”) but also to the cultural identity and social standing that a love of the classics provides the philistine. The philistine respects what Nietzsche calls “those feeble and egoistic sensations promised by our concert halls and theatres to anyone who can pay for them,” and mistakes their consumption for a sign of connoisseurship and sensitivity”

Dr. Roy Turner, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, also served as Professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto. Turner was one of a group of Erving Goffman’s students at Berkeley in the 1960s who, through Harvey Sacks (also a Goffman student), were introduced to the work of Harold Garfinkel at UCLA, and came to comprise the post‐1967 first generation of practitioners of ethnomethodology (EM) and conversation analysis (CA). Turner’s work in these genres includes the seminal 1970 paper “Words, utterances and activities” that recovers the importance of J. L. Austin’s linguistic‐philosophical analysis of How To Do Things with Words for sociological inquiry. In 1974 Penguin published his edited collection Ethnomethodology: Selected Readings. He subsequently moved on from EM/CA to take up a form of cultural criticism influenced initially by the “Analysis” of Alan Blum and Peter McHugh at York, but then more strongly by Hannah Arendt. He has published two articles in the online journal Philosophy Now, “Did Duchamp’s Urinal Flush Away Art?” (2008) and “Ethics Made Easy: ‘Feel Good, Do the Right Thing’” (2010).

Friends and Enemies of the Canon – Roy Turner

The canon comes before us today chiefly as the target of various acts of repudiation; students at Stanford University seem to repudiate the very tradition that has formed them, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go”; Douglas Crimp, an editor of October, tells us, in effect, that since Rauschenberg all art hitherto has been made irrelevant; Eugene Donato dismisses the museum’s claim to be a spokesperson for tradition by proposing that, without the support of a fiction that cannot be sustained, the museum is no more than a warehouse full of bric-a-brac. In the domain of education we see the canon everywhere set aside in the interests of “relevance,” “interests,” or “method”.

Repudiation, of course, serves as one of the ways a culture represents and makes a place for matters that figure in its life and in its anxious deliberations about that life. So we shall not say that this negative regard betokens the death of the canon; like Friedrich Nietzsche’s God, it continues to live in the announcement of its death. The turmoil at Stanford makes clear the fact, which needs elaboration, that the status of the canon is inextricably caught up with the character – even the existence – of the public world and public life. Though less obviously, the place of the canon in art and criticism, too, speaks to the question of what may or shall appear in public, and hence to how a culture represents its sense of what is worthwhile and definitive. The speech against the canon is not simply an argument against complacently established “classics” and “old masters” but is inspired by the wish to be free of tradition, of history – in short, the wish to be only contemporary, to have no provenance.

If our topic is the complex relationship between the idea of culture and the idea of the canon, it is important to keep cultural usage concerning canonicity in front of us. Otherwise we are likely to jump prematurely into abstraction. Ludwig Wittgenstein offers guidance as to the connection between cultural usage, with which one begins, and the place invulnerable to usage that one aims to occupy. David Pears nicely characterizes Wittgenstein’s sense of the relationship of philosophical thinking to the confusions of ordinary language:

The philosopher is driven by a passionate desire to understand the limits of language, and, when he tries to satisfy this desire, the first thing that inevitably happens is that his mind is filled with images which, though they are delusive, have a primitive naturalness which he must experience. Then, and only then can he go on to achieve the understanding that he seeks. If he tries to go straight to the second stage without going through the first one, he will suffer from what Wittgenstein calls “loss of problems.” (126)

What I understand Pears to be saying is that the philosopher must always, and necessarily, experience the “confusions” of ordinary language and keep in mind the culture’s various and conflicting manifestations of the phenomenon, not simply as a methodological aid to doing philosophy, but as a recognition of the philosopher’s own humanity and participation in the life that sustains and is sustained by those manifestations. The social theorist, too, must respond to cultural representations without either endorsing or dismissing usage, since each of these alternatives obliterates the space for analysis. The consequence of forgetting the need to be in touch with representations of phenomena is the production of arid work that indeed gives us a sense of “loss of problems.” Michael Walzer reaches a similar conclusion on the basis of an entirely different account of social philosophy, arguing that social criticism that divorces itself from “local understandings” and “disconnects” itself from cultural formulations risks being asociable and manipulative. In Walzer’s account, the “connected critic” resists the temptation to be abstract (to lose the problems) and follows the Aristotelian advice to “work with the practices.” Working with the practices recommends itself as a way of approaching the canon’s place in culture, and at the same time seems to offer a glimpse, a preview, of what that place is, since the canon itself – like criticism – belongs to the world of practices. The abstract and the disconnected show up in the usage to be examined and also constitute a temptation for the theorist to turn away from cultural representations on the grounds that they are “subjective” or ephemeral. To say, then, that these representations and the practices in which they are embodied are not definitive is not to dismiss them; it is, rather, to invite the kind of analysis that will disclose their problematic core, for which we can understand the representations as intended solutions. Continue reading Friends and Enemies of the Canon – Roy Turner