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Posted on Monday, March 08, 2004 - 06:14 am:   

I said in my "Howdy" thread: "Either writing is the intellectual form of Aikido, or Aikido is the physical form of writing. I'm not sure which." This thread is an effort to discuss the interrelationship of Aikido and writing in a more serious manner. I assume that most people interested in this thread know something about Aikido; however, if someone wants more explanation, please let me know. I can go on about Aikido ad infinitum!

Both writing and Aikido are, at their hearts, about communication. While you write alone, the process isn't complete until someone reads and understands what you wrote. In Aikido, you train with a partner, and how well the training goes depends on the quality of your physical communication.

That emphasis on communication might explain why most of the best writing on martial arts is done by Aikido teachers and students. I was drawn to Aikido by that good writing; I orginally studied karate.

I often figure out what I think about something by writing about it. Likewise, Aikido training helps me figure things out on the physical plane. This gives me a richer understanding of ideas. Somehow I need both physical and intellectual process to completely understand things. I don't think everyone needs this, but I also doubt that I'm unique.

I've also noticed that training in Aikido and as a writer are similar. In Aikido, of course, you train within a dojo, while most writers do their learning on a more ad hoc basis. (Most writers are more like "ronin" -- masterless samurai -- than followers of a specific teacher.) But the paths are a lot alike.

In Aikido, you come in as a beginner. You try things, and teachers and senior students correct your effots and give you new ideas. As you develop, you begin to offer some help to the more junior people, while still taking instruction from your seniors and working together with your peers. Even when you become a teacher, you still draw in help from your peers and more senior instructors. And -- most importantly -- you learn even more from the students you teach. In this whole process, you get constant feedback from your teachers, your seniors, your peers and your juniors. You develop your own ideas and understanding, but you constantly work with others in developing it.

Beginning writers also learn from the more experienced, whether they do it by doing lots of reading and imitating that or by taking classes. As you get better, the process of having your work critiqued -- by teachers, your peers, and even beginning writers -- becomes more useful. Likewise, you learn a lot from doing critiques. Even as you get experienced, you continue to learn by having your work read, and by reading that of others.

Both Aikido and writing are lifetime activities, because there's always something more to discover. In Aikido, even a teacher must be open to the idea that there is more to learn; that keeps training fresh. I suspect approaching writing as if you can always learn something more through the process is a good way to keep yourself from getting too comfortable and falling into a rut.

Okay, that's a start. I'm interested to hear your reactions.
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Michail Velichansky
Posted on Monday, March 08, 2004 - 09:49 pm:   


Do you think that Aikido has a creative component to it? For all the rules that people try to come up with, writing very much lacks any rules. Aikido, I think, has defined principles underlying the way it is performed.

This means that though you get critiques in both, their nature is fundamentally different. In Aikido, if after a move your oponent/partner has fallen to the floor and is controlled, you have been successful at least at a very basic level. Critique will be based on improving how you accomplished that task.

With writing, not only will you get critiques on how to accomplish your task--often different and contradictory--but you could be told that you don't want to accomplish that task at all, that you need to accomplish something else, or that it isn't worth accomplishing. Aikido is much more than self-defense, but it's definately not competative dance. With writing, you never know, and everyone else thinks they know for you.

Also, it seems to me that while the act of Aikido is about communication, writing is as often an act of observation. I think writing often requires a part of you to distance yourself from the environment, to be at least partially seperated from the mechanics of life around you. Aikido is about communication, and thus you become part of the motion of bodies until you can manipulate them.

Hmm... don't know if the second makes as much sense as the first. I'm not sure I believe everything I said, either. But what do you think?

P.S. - Congrats on the forum!
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Posted on Tuesday, March 09, 2004 - 12:12 pm:   

Hi Mike. Nice to see you here.

Yes, I think Aikido has a creative component. It's not a completely freestyle type of creativity -- you need to act within the principles -- but the actual way you respond to an attack is often creative. This happens more often the longer you train. Just as a beginning writer must learn to apply the rules of grammar and story construction and so forth, a beginning Aikido student must learn some basic techniques. Once you understand those things better, as both a writer and an Aikido student, you have room to create your own structure or movement.

I make a distinction between principles and rules. A principle is something that is so fundamental that it cannot be broken; a rule is more of a guideline. Aikido principles include breathing, connecting with your partner, moving, use of the spiral, and so forth. Aikido rules include "step here, then step there." You may need to break the rules, but if you break the principles, there's no Aikido.

I fundamentally disagree with the statement "In Aikido, if after a move your oponent/partner has fallen to the floor and is controlled, you have been successful at least at a very basic level." If you're a beginner, and trying to learn the basic techniques (something I find equivalent to the rules of grammar), getting the person to the ground might be a start, just like the sentences you learned to write in elementary school were a start. But once you know the basic movement, if you got the person to the floor by brute strength, I'd say that wasn't Aikido, especially if the person is even more pissed off or is scared of you. Basic technique is not Aikido; it's just the information you need to learn Aikido. Likewise, the rules of grammar aren't writing, but you need to know them to write.

I think writing also has fundamental principles, but I confess I'm struggling with how to articulate them. One might be communication -- it does seem to me that a piece of writing must, ultimately, communicate. Writing may be grounded in observation, but unless it also communicates what was observed, it doesn't work. Communication doesn't necessarily mean that the piece of writing is easy to understand, only that the reader can take something from it.

More thoughts on fundamental principles of writing would be greatly appreciated.
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Michail Velichansky
Posted on Tuesday, March 09, 2004 - 09:59 pm:   

If there are fundamental principles to writing, I think they'd only apply to whatever you were trying to do with the writing, and whatever the people who made you decide to write like that tried to do.

Kind of like the funamental principles of Aikido are different from those of Karate.

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Posted on Wednesday, March 10, 2004 - 05:48 am:   

My gut tells me that there are fundamental principles that don't vary much between forms of writing. But then I tend to think the fundamental principles of Aikido and Karate aren't that far apart, either -- or, at least, that they have some principles in common.

For example, you could say that there are fundamental differences between prose and poetry. Poetry certainly requires more structure, and the difference between a sonnet and a fantasy novel is pretty clear. But there are many structures in poetry, some much less formal than others. How much difference is there between a prose poem and slipstream fantasy? At the edges, everything gets fuzzy. That leads me to think that while there are different rules for different forms and genres, there are still fundamental principles out there.

I'm reading some Natalie Goldberg right now, so maybe I'll come up with some more coherent ideas. Goldberg brings writing and Zen together. Makes sense to me.
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Posted on Thursday, March 11, 2004 - 05:39 am:   

Here's a proposed writing principle. Natalie Goldberg said:
"[F]iction ha[s] to conform to or mirror an inner rightness or structure that we carry within our psyches."

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Timmi Duchamp
Posted on Thursday, March 11, 2004 - 09:56 pm:   

When I first read your quote from Goldberg, it struck me as too vague to speak meaningfully to me. & yet it kept coming back to me all day. & now I'm wondering if three quotes from Nietzche, taken together, propose the same thing:

"Our first question when judging the worth of books, men [sic] or pieces of music, is to find out if they have a good step, or better still, a dance." [Can you pretend Nietzsche is talking about human beings rather than about men? I mostly can-- until I experience the sinking sensation that when he perceived that a woman (perhaps Lou Adreas Salome?) had a "good step, or better still, a dance," it likely signified something entirely different for Nietzsche himself.]

"A person's step reveals whether or not he [sic] is already on his [sic] own path. So watch me walk! But the person approaching his goal-- he dances." [I like the idea of this, but all the male pronouns makes it a little difficult to take in. The male pronouns feel like barbed wire: please try to mentally rewrite these sentences so that you & I & so many others can be included in them as well as the guys.]

& the third:

"Dance, now, on a thousand backs,
On the backs of perfidious blades--
Hail, he [sic] who creates new dances!
Let s dance then in a thousand ways.
That our art be known as-- free!
And described as gay-- our knowledge!"

It's about art, isn't it, Nancy. (Aikido, writing, & dance are all forms of art that celebrate human presence.)

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Posted on Friday, March 12, 2004 - 08:58 am:   

It's about art, yes -- but even free art needs certain principles. You can't dance on the backs of those thousand perfidious blades timidly, nor carelessly. That brings to mind another possible principle -- one shared by both Aikido and writing: Risk. You cannot develop mastery of any art or path without taking chances.

Nietzsche's talk of dance makes me think of one of my all time favorite essays: "White Boys Dancing" by Michael Ventura (it's in his collection Shadow Dancing in the USA). It starts: "You can say anything but you can't move anyway. White people tend to think they know things if they can say them." This rings true to me because it's another thing I've found from Aikido -- I understand ideas better if I can move them. And the Nietzsche quotes above sound like he's on the same track (which might surprise Ventura, or maybe not).

Ventura goes on to put the risk factor in dance -- social dancing, like the rock 'n' roll dancing of the 50s and 60s. He says the reason that women of all races, minority men, and men who grew up in poor ethnic neighborhoods (Ventura's Sicilian by heritage and grew up in Brooklyn) dance better than white men is because they all grew up being judged on how they moved, whereas white men (and he means basically upper middle class US men, the sort who assume that they are in charge) weren't subject to those same pressures. In a tough neighborhood, a guy who moves too timidly gets beat up for sport; one who acts too tough gets attacked out of fear. With women, I think it's move too sexy and you're a whore (and fair game); don't move sexy enough and you're a dog (and another kind of fair game).

As for the male pronouns and such -- oh, for a language with real gender neutral pronouns!
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Timmi Duchamp
Posted on Monday, March 15, 2004 - 03:27 pm:   

For me, the thing to be remembered about risk is that it's not something incurred only when one first starts, but is something which must be present whenever one practices the art. The sure thing that is repeated & repeated & repeated ceases to be art, even if it was risky on the first iteration.

But to switch gears for a moment: I have the urge to say something about the gendering (or not) of pronouns. In the case of aesthetic theory (& many other areas of philosophy), gendered pronouns are merely a sign of the problem, one that all too often functions as a red herring, & not the problem itself. I was reminded of this again this weekend when reading a discussion of Hume's aesthetic theory. I don't, of course, mean to be singling Hume out for special criticism, since when it comes to taking the middle-class white male point of view as the universal standard for judgment, he is, of course, just like most other nonfeminist philosophers in doing so. [There's a huge literature addressing this problem that most critics remain blithely ignorant of, since to be aware of it would throw a spanner into their entire way of thinking.] On just about any given day in my life I run across the simplistic assumption that one particular perspective & aesthetic judgment rules over all others-- whether that perspective & judgment trumps sf with mainstream literary values, or feminist sf is trumped by male-dominated sf values-- & that, in so ruling, is the objective, universal standard of judgment. I guess I must be a pretty stubborn, willful character, to go on trusting my own judgment in the face of so many guys continually playing father knows best.

This discussion of Hume's aesthetic theory occurs in an article in differences14,3 by Monique Roelofs, "A Pearl's Pleasures and Perils: The Detail at the Foundation of Taste." Roelofs notes that Hume posits that there are men who are "true judges" of aesthetic beauty & works of genius. Here Hume uses the word "men" not because he lacked a facility for gender-neutral language, but to deliberately signify human beings sporting penises-- which is made plain when, discussing the five essential qualities in men of taste, Hume makes a comparison between the different ways men & women possess one of those reqirements. Roelofs writes:

'Hume reserves for women a special, limited kind of delicacy of taste, one linked with another form of sensitivity to detail, namely, delicacy of passion, which is a sensitivity to the little prosaic events that make up an ordinary day. This limited form of detail sensitivity applies to the judgment of certain everyday aesthetic practices but fails to extend to productions of genius, that is to say, to works of art.

"[W]e may observe that women who have more delicate passions than men, have also a more delicate taste of the ornaments of life, of dress, equipage, and the ordinary decencies of behavior. Any excellency in these hits their taste sooner than ours; and when you please their taste, you soon engage their affections."

For Hume, then, white, middle-class European woman comes with a minimal amount of taste-- bad taste, perhaps, but less vulgar than the taste of Indians and peasants...'

Skipping on ahead (since explaining the article's focus-- on the detail-- is a bit beside the point for our own discussion):

'Practice, comparative experience, and freedom from prejudice masculinze taste by favoring the judgments of male critics over those of female critics. Examples of this are many. I will give one. In Hume's view, "warm passions" that cause one to be especially "touched with amorous and tender images" constitute an acceptable critical predisposition in young men, one that can appropriately inform their judgment of artworks and that represents a legitimate source of variation in judgment among true critics. A "tender and amorous disposition," however, perverts the capacity of women to make critical judgments of "books of gallantry and devotion," even though as instances of polite writings, these books exemplify a genre of which Hume takes educated women generally to be more competent judges than men.'

Does this remind you of anything, Nancy? Over the last few months my attention has been increasingly drawn to what appears to be a chasm between women-dominated & men-dominated discussions of books & various critical issues that I've lately been encountering on the internet. A few men are present in the women-dominated regions, & some women are present in the men-dominated regions, but the aesthetic sensibility in each of these spheres strikes me as sharply differentiated. Interestingly (& not at all surprisingly), although a considerable amount of the work discussed in the men-dominated regions is also discussed in the women-dominated regions, much of the work discussed in the women-dominated regions is too despised to be recognized as worthy of discussion in the men-dominated regions-- or, in those rare instances that it is recognized, is criticized without regard for the work's original discursive context. (This practice looks to me very much like a manifestation of what used to be known as the sexist double-standard.) Many of the guys use gender-neutral pronouns in the male-dominated regions. But their doing so only disguises the double standard-- it certainly doesn't eliminate it. The presence of women who dissociate themselves from the assumed-to-be inferior girl-stuff works in a similar way. There've always been exceptional women accepted by the guys; but they're inevitably forgotten, since the guys can't handle more than a few exceptional women at a time. (Too many exceptional women, after all, would contaminate the Good Stuff with the girl-stuff taint.)

Oh dear. I seem to have hijacked your thread. Sorry about that.

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Posted on Monday, March 15, 2004 - 04:23 pm:   

But you hijacked it in such an interesting way, Timmi! And we can get back to Aikido and writing if someone else weighs back in.

I have to go teach an Aikido class, and everything you said is going to require thought, but here's the top of my head response:

1. I've noticed with some amusement that even male lawyers from very conservative law firms use gender neutral language these days when they write articles. It's an improvement, but I don't think it means that they're really ceding any power.

2. I've had a twitchy feeling about gender issues in publishing lately that seems to be summarized by your parenthetical observation "Too many exceptional women, after all, would contaminate the Good Stuff with the girl-stuff taint."

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Michail Velichansky
Posted on Tuesday, March 16, 2004 - 09:19 pm:   


I haven't noticed such a chasm in between female- or male-dominated discussions of books and/or aesthetics, but it's a result of never really reading any great number of such discussions. I'm interested--how is the aesthetic sensibility different between these two groups? (As you've observed...)

As for gender neutral pronouns, I want one for the simple, selfish reason of being able to write gender ambiguous characters (or if not ambiguous, than just not fitting into s/he). 'It' always seems to suck the humanity (or whatever) out of the character, and no matter how often you tell an audience something is neuter or hermaphroditic or whatnot, he or she will always connotate something. (I must admit I've made use of that before...)

Samuel R. Delany wrote around this in (I _think_, please correct me if I am wrong) The Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand--every character was "she", except when there was some kind of sexual attraction.
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Posted on Sunday, March 21, 2004 - 07:56 am:   

Timmi, as usual you open a whole, complex way of looking at a situation, one that requires a great deal of thought. I think you really get to the heart of the issue with this statement:
"On just about any given day in my life I run across the simplistic assumption that one particular perspective & aesthetic judgment rules over all others-- whether that perspective & judgment trumps sf with mainstream literary values, or feminist sf is trumped by male-dominated sf values-- & that, in so ruling, is the objective, universal standard of judgment."

That is, the problem isn't solely a feminist issue. It's also an issue of race, class, nationality, and genre (and probably a few other things). The literary establishment decides what is good and bad, and lets in a few people they deem "exceptional" from one of the other subsets. The irony to me is that each of the subsets has its own literary establishment (and sometimes more than one) that "polices" the genre.

The literary establishment is predominantly white, male and upper middle class, though no longer exclusively so. (I don't think you can leave Toni Morrison out, for example.) I do think it now includes more women, minorities, those from working class backgrounds, and so forth -- and perhaps it even includes a couple of "genre" writers. To some extent, those people have agreed to join the established aesthetic rules (which is probably why Margaret Atwood continues to say she doesn't write SF, when of course she does). But to some extent they've broadened them. It's a slow process, but it does happen. A hundred years ago Jewish (and probably also Catholic) male literary writers were not considered part of that literary establishment, but today I'd say that were pretty much integrated within it.

Mike, I suspect that one reason you see less of this gender gap than Timmi and I is generational: you've grown up exposed to more women who are cited as authorities than we did. This is one place I do see change: I think people of your generation are less blinded by gender (and race) when someone states an opinion.

But while the literary establishment is gaining wider membership, and while that membership is making the rules of aesthetics a little broader, this is incremental change, and the old fashioned standards are still there. This week I feel more offended by the literary establishment's pooh-poohing of science fiction than I do about the gender issues. I just read last weeks' NY Times book review, which was full of books about the suburbs, and I wondered who really wants to read all that crap (and, okay, I'm sure that not all of it is crap). Why is it that books that address the way our current lifestyle makes us miserable are considered greater art than books that address our dreams and nightmares, or ones that suggest where we can go in the future? It's clearly not just the way the books are written -- I've read far too much masterfully written SF/F to even entertain that notion.

But of course, within the genre we get into several sub-fights. There are the Golden Age purists and the literary purists. Everyone seems to deride sword and sorcery and space opera (and I happen to be fond of both, though I'm picky about them). Most seem to deride feminist SF, partly on the grounds that the revolution is over, which annoys me as well. The presence of female starship captains is nice, but it's not the only thing we were talking about.

On a slightly different note: I've noticed that most bookstores have sections for African American fiction. They may put Octavia Butler or Toni Morrison in these sections, but it's primarily aimed at rather mainstream novels by black authors. While some of the separation is for marketing -- black readers are hungry for books that show their lives -- I think some of it is also a bit of aesthetic ghettoizing (African American literature isn't "real" literature). The same can be said of the current fad for chick lit (I can't think of a more demeaning term for a genre, frankly). I don't know if any of it's worth reading, because I can't get past the name and the idea that it's about women who are obsessed with love and shopping for the right trendy shoes, subjects that feel anti-feminist to me and also bore me to tears. (I am horrified by the obsession of young women with idiotic, uncomfortable shoes.) The setting aside of these stories into their own genre dictates who reads them. I'm an aesthetic snob of sorts; I wouldn't be caught dead reading chick lit. I don't read romance either. Love is a good thing, but it is not the sole important thing in the universe, and I only want to read so much fiction about it. You can tell me romance is really a feminist genre all you want, or that chick lit is about liberated women, but I have a hard time believing either. (I recognize that I've bought into the aesthetic judgment here, but I'm not ready to question that judgment by reading some of these books. That could be blindness on my part.)

Getting back to Hume and gender-neutral pronouns: Clearly the pronoun issue won't solve the gender bias evident in Hume, and in most thinkers of earlier generations. Even if you change the pronouns, you don't change his aesthetic opinions. It occurs to me that the authors of the US Constitution really meant men, not people, when they said "All men are created equal." For that matter, they meant white men. Fortunately, the Constitution is somewhat more flexible in adapting broader standards than Hume is. It is interesting to look at work that no longer offends if you think in gender-neutral terms and then to compare it to work that offends regardless. The same things can be done with race, class, ethnicity and so forth.

But after all these observations about the problem of some establishment defining true aesthetics, I still find myself wondering if there is work that is universally aesthetically superior. And I suspect that there is. I'm not sure it can be defined (but I tend to be a person who reacts to stuff with my gut and then has to figure out why I think something is good or bad), but I know that sometimes I read a piece that moves me in a way that nothing else does. And sometimes I feel the same way about it thirty years later.

Some of that reaction is purely personal, of course -- my aesthetics -- but some of those stories or books have been embraced by others as well. I suspect there are great books that simply transcend any group or individual definition of aesthetics. Perhaps the chief goal of discussions such as this one should be to widen the aesthetic definition so that it includes as many genres and subsets of writers as possible, so that the great stuff doesn't pass by unnoticed just because it's written by someone on the fringes.

Anyone else want to speculate about transcendant greatness?
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Monday, March 22, 2004 - 01:01 pm:   

My apologies for dropping out like that. I intend to engage with your thoughtful post later (possibly today), Nancy, though I'm short of time right at this moment.

Michael, before we start looking at or talking about the differences I mention having noticed, it'd be helpful if you'd read an essay by Karen Joy Fowler in the March issue of the _Believer_-- "Jane and Me." It's elegant & clever, as Fowler's prose tends to be. Among the questions the essay wrestles with is that of gendered differences in reading (& by extension in aesthetic judgments). The sophisticated, careful way "Jane and Me" discusses these differences offers an antidote to stark oppositions that plunging into the topic without preparation would likely encourage.


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Posted on Monday, March 22, 2004 - 01:51 pm:   

That's the nice thing about online discussions -- there's no rush. I'm not familiar with The Believer, but I just checked online and found I could get it near work. So I'm going to pick up a copy myself.
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Posted on Thursday, March 25, 2004 - 09:03 pm:   

I've made a long, rather personal post on my own board about Tiptree that touches on a more narrowly focused area of the issue we're discussing here (i.e., it touches on gender politics), which you might want to take a look at. Although I mostly talk about the larger problem in terms of gender, I agree that it's much bigger than that. At bottom, I suspect, the problem can be stated as that of one in-group wishing to assert its alpha-status over every other in-group by way of seeing itself & its values as the unmarked term in every binary. For example, men are humans, not males, while women can only be female men-- & not, like "men," represent "human." (Just as "day" can mean both night & day, but "night" can never mean both night & day.) The unmarked term, which can be used to designate both the general & the specific, is obviously superior to the marked term, which can only represent a special case of the general.

& so with "fiction" & "sf." (Such that "fiction" is the unmarked term (which includes "real" literature), while "sf," as a special subset, is the marked term that many people assume means it's not "real" literature.) But when you get inside the "sf" designation, although there's the unmarked "real" sf & the marked "feminist" sf (or "sf by women"), we must also account for the other battles for ideological preeminence that you mention. As far as I'm concerned, all of these amount to cases of ideological cliques trying to exert & demonstrate their mastery & establish control over the genre. (What I sometimes call "canon-building," which I'm afraid every genre is subject to.) I find it terribly boring, just as I find the constant hyping of this or that author among this or that group of fans/readers utterly tedious. Why can't critics just talk in terms of what they each find interesting? Why this need to assert one's own likes & dislikes as the objective standard everyone else should kowtow to?

In past centuries, the "educated person" of Western European background could be assumed to have read (& been taught to read with a fairly uniform interpretation) all of the same "basic" texts. This is not to say that every literate person read every text ever published, only that there was a finite canon of texts with established, consensually-agreed-upon meanings that educated people (usually men) all had mastered. Texts by women, however eminent, were not among these-- although there were, indeed, plenty of texts by women. & of course many texts by men fell by the wayside, also. That some texts survived & others didn't had largely to do with a combination of accidental factors & local politics. A number of scholars have done impressive work trying to understand the conditions of canonicity. It's very, very complicated.

But it's also an artifact of the past. That system has broken down. There is no longer a discrete set of texts that every educated person has mastered in a uniform way. I have the sense, though, that in every field today, in every smallest area of interest, there are people desperately nostalgic for a return to the good ole days of that kind of mastery & (snobbish) common view. So what we have in sf is-- These texts are the ones everyone [in field or subfield X] should read! Or these are the stories & novels published this year that are worth reading! & so on & so forth. But of course it's impossible, absolutely impossible to return to this premodern state of affairs. Ironically, I believe that the Internet has made this impulse even fiercer, because the Internet has generated the means of wide-flung communication & thus made the desire to share a discursive field all the more pressing, when in fact discursivity is more fragmented than its ever been. But in the pursuit of this desire to share, it's become clear that to share a discursive field you must at the very least be reading & agreeing on the excellence & worthiness of the same things. Thus the impetus to force one's own values on everyone else (or worse, simply to assume that everyone thinks as one does) is nearly irresistible.

I think I'd better stop & think a bit more, Nancy. Maybe from a slightly different angle.


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Posted on Friday, March 26, 2004 - 09:50 am:   

I've now read Karen's article "Jane and Me," which was fascinating and has triggered a bunch of thoughts, some of which must wait for later. But it occurs to me that I must have an incomplete idea of what the canon encompasses. I have always assumed that Jane Austen was an integral part of the canon -- in fact, it never occurred to me that men didn't read her, much less that men didn't take her seriously. I just always assumed that she was one of the girls let into the club (after her lifetime, of course). I didn't think the club expanded, you understand; merely that she was one of the exceptions.

Timmi, I think you're right that the rules of the canon are crumbling because of the Internet and the recognition (because of easy travel and communication) that there are works of art produced in many cultures, and many languages. I can't even come close to reading everything I would like to have read -- and that just includes the works I know about. I don't think I could come close even if I quit my day job and gave up writing fiction -- and I'm a fast reader. So if I make a list of things worth reading, it's going to necessarily be limited by the books I managed to read. And since I mostly read in English (occasionally Spanish and French), even the potential list is limited to what has been translated. Most books published in Japan are never translated into English, for example.

You make a good point on how the Internet may be fueling the need of those who see themselves as dictating the canon (and those who would like to supplant them) to greater efforts of declaring certain thing to be worth reading. As usual, the Internet brings a certain amount of chaos to the debate.

A couple of years ago I had a passing fancy to study philosophy, with an eye to looking at Aikido in philosophical terms. So I looked at course offerings from various universities to see if this could be done. I was shocked to find out that many universities don't even offer a course in "Eastern" philosophy, much less ones that offer more detailed studies in the many philosophical disciplines of Japan, China and other countries. Philosophy in most US universities means Western European philosophy -- i.e., the canon. If you're interested in Eastern philosophy, they direct you to Asian Studies courses, which are, of course, more anthropology than philosophy. It strikes me that there's a major canonical difference between studying ideas as philosophy and studying them as anthropology. In philosophy you're looking at an idea as part of your own search for truth; in anthropology, you're learning that these people thought this way. I don't mean to define anthropology as an inferior study; only to say that if you study ideas as anthropology you are not likely taking them seriously as ideas but rather looking at them as cultural artifacts.

It occurs to me that perhaps reading the male authors of the canon is considered studying literature, while reading great women authors becomes a form of anthropology, especially when they write primarily of women, as Austen did.

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Michail Velichansky
Posted on Monday, April 19, 2004 - 04:57 pm:   

Oh man, things just got crazy busy and I forgot to respond... Don't know if you're reading this, even. But--I did read the essay a while back (borrowed it from Nancy). I found it interesting, but mostly it just seemed to point out that guys seem more likely to dislike Jane Austin, and then defended Jane Austin, etc.

I don't really know what to make of it one way or another since I never read any Jane Austin, but the Karen Jay Fowler talks about her with such interest that I'll have to go and try her. My girlfriend signed up for a class on Jane Austin next Fall semester; we're going to read the books together. I'm looking forward to it--I'm really curious if I like it or not. On the one hand, I can see not caring about who marries who; on the other, if it's done well enough, just about any subject can be an incredible read.

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