Yes, we Canon!


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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44 Responses

  1. Avatar Chris says:

    We return often here to this debate about whether tastes are subjective or objective, but it seems like the dichotomy is a bit false.


    • Avatar Chris says:

      To expand on “definitely,” definitely yes.

      Kidding. Aesthetic and artistic judgments aren’t entirely objective or subjective, it is both at the same time, and on multiple dimensions. Most prominently, they are inter-subjective, but they are also physiological, they are contextual, and they are temporal. Boiling this down to a subjective-objective debate, and treating the subjective as synonymous with personally relative, is to throw a blunt dart and miss art altogether.Report

  2. Avatar Glyph says:

    We’re rolling languid like sun dazed lions in my disordered bed on one of those mornings in which two o’clock still feels like “morning”… our words like a wire winding through our days with little sparkling lights attached.

    SOMEone’s in LO-OOOOVE!

    Just teasing, Rufus. These were beautiful sentences.Report

  3. Avatar zic says:

    This seems like a great place to talk poetry.

    Stuff like this:

    Glass Box
    You know, it’s the old glass box at the—
    At the gas station,
    Where you’re using those little things
    Trying to pick up the prize,
    And you can’t find it.

    And it’s all these arms are going down in there,
    And so you keep dropping it
    And picking it up again and moving it,

    Some of you are probably too young to remember those—
    Those glass boxes,

    But they used to have them
    At all the gas stations
    When I was a kid.

    D. H. Rumsfeld,

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      I always thought his military strategy was the stuff of poetry myself.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Rufus, I agree. If only Homer had had such material to work with!

        And this was a stunningly beautiful post, the liquid sunshine flooding your life with joy, shared. Thank you.

        I’m tempted to compose a long and thoughtful comment about jazz, and might later, if I find the right hook.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Vogon poetry.Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      Hey, his infamous ‘trained ape’ shows up back in 2001:

      The Digital Revolution

      Oh my goodness gracious,
      What you can buy off the Internet
      In terms of overhead photography!

      A trained ape can know an awful lot
      Of what is going on in this world,
      Just by punching on his mouse
      For a relatively modest cost!

      —June 9, 2001, following European tripReport

  4. Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

    Humans are seemingly naturally attracted to social hierarchies. This is one reason I am critical of anarchism as a philosophy. We seem drawn to defining our tribes, in groups and out groups.

    One way to do this is through the establishment of canon. What is and what is not worthy of study, superiority, etc.

    I’m as guilty of this as anyone else unfortunately. I take a certain amount of pride in being part of the cultural elite as Hanley said of me once on these pages. It took me a long time to work and develop and appreciation for arthouse cinema and I like that I can sit through Goddard’s more abstract works like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. I can’t stand Lars von Trier though with his half-baked Brechtianism. I like that I know more about theatre companies like Cheek by Jowl and The Propeller Group over How I Met Your Mother, etc.Report

  5. Avatar Dan Miller says:

    The question becomes, what do you do when you encounter someone with whom you disagree? If somebody says that the Fast and the Furious really is the best movie ever made, should you explain to them why they’re wrong, why their enjoyment is false? Become upset at their lack of taste? Consider them less intelligent or less admirable? Because ultimately that’s where the argument for objective aesthetics leads (if not for all believers in objectivity, than certainly for a substantial subset of them). If you enjoy certain things more than others, and feel like you can discuss them intelligently–or even if you defer to the expertise of others–that’s great. It’s when you start to judge others for disagreement that I get off the train.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

      I don’t get upset. Just kind of lonely.

      This goes back to my theatre post. One of the things I said I loved about theatre was the “low-tech” of it. Meaning that they don’t have millions of dollars to spend on sets and costumes and lighting most of the time. Often theatre companies can have less than a 100,000 dollars to spend on everything. I love it when artists can create whole worlds and suck the audience in and use good acting and atmosphere to create Elisnore, The forest at Arden, Verona, etc with very little money. This is theatre magic.

      This stuff was dismissed as trite and boring on the post.

      There seems to be a bias towards ultra-realism and ultra-spectacle in American films and movies. Now sometimes abstraction gets too much, see my comments on Lars von Trier but it seems like everything is sf extravaganza after sf extravaganza. I can enjoy these as well but I also like movies where you discuss them in more depth than “Did you see that explosion, bro. Wicked ass shit” and the conversations should be more in-depth than constantly parroting the funny lines. A lot of geeky conversations on movies seem to be a constant repetition of favorite lines instead of broader and indepth analysis on the characters, the plots, their faults, their successes, broader meaning, subtext, etc. One time a woman got very angry and upset when I mentioned subtext and said “Why can’t things just be what they are on the surface? Why do you have to look for second meanings in every line?”

      I see a nation of people becoming hermits and just glued to netflix instead of going out and being social. Seeing theatre or movies or art or readings and discussing them after. We just watch our hulu plus and tweet and text about it. That is depressing.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        “instead of going out and being social.” “We just watch our hulu plus and tweet and text about it

        You have a narrow and pre-Alexander Graham Bell definition of social. Just sayin’.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      What I usually do is simply listen politely while rolling my eyes at least a bit eternally. I get the philosophical argument on why all taste is subjective. At least for physical things like wine or equipment, there is even some scientific evidence that our perceptions and subjective beliefs really shape our tastes and that everything is subjective.

      At the same time, I can’t accept a world where Dan Brown and Herman Hesse or Danielle Steele and Virginia Wolf are considered equal as writers simply because people derive pleasure from all four of them. To use an old word, the argument seems rather philistine. It ultimately comes to the issue of art. If you see everything as basically entertainment with no deep meanings or whether something can be art and inspire or challenge humanity. If you believe art exists than you are likely to think that there is such a thing as objectively superior art.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      What I usually do is simply listen politely while rolling my eyes at least a bit eternally. I get the philosophical argument on why all taste is subjective. At least for physical things like wine or equipment, there is even some scientific evidence that our perceptions and subjective beliefs really shape our tastes and that everything is subjective.

      At the same time, I can’t accept a world where Dan Brown and Herman Hesse or Danielle Steele and Virginia Wolf are considered equal as writers simply because people derive pleasure from all four of them. To use an old word, the argument seems rather philistine. It ultimately comes to the issue of art. If you see everything as basically entertainment with no deep meanings or whether something can be art and inspire or challenge humanity. If you believe art exists than you are likely to think that there is such a thing as objectively superior art.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        So your claim is that I don’t believe in art, that I can’t be deeply affected or challenged or moved by a great work? I’m trying not to be personal here, but that’s a pretty sweeping and borderline offensive statement. I merely refuse to impose my own beliefs on others–that’s the only assertion I’m making here, and to claim on that basis that I’m a philistine who can’t truly appreciate art is exactly the kind of arrogance I was warning against in my comment.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Not really but I’m not enough of a post-modernist to be entirely comfortable with the idea that tastes in media consumption should be entirely subjective and everything considered of equal quality. It seems demeaning to humans to suggest that the novels of Albert Camus and My Little Pony fanfiction are of equal quality because both of their admirers and people who enjoy them. Its like we can’t strive better.Report

    • Avatar dhex says:

      tokyo drift really is one of my favorite films. (i have not seen any of the others for fear of ruining my appreciation of it)

      you know a movie is good when you’re taking bets with your compatriots on how it’s going to end.Report

  6. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    I don’t see how this isn’t just a case of some people wanting to present their particular, subjective judgment as objective when they are not. The education level of the people making the claim, asserting the truth of this canon, doesn’t make the claim valid.

    “I can tell you structurally which ones are the best.” is BS. (Given the delicate circumstances described, probably not appropriate at the time to call it out as such.) Omniscience is not a property of human beings – even groups of sommeliers or groups of film scholars can’t claim it. Can we arrive at “commonly accepted and quantifiable criteria” in answering questions like: What is film number 26? What distinguishes the top drawer from the second top drawer? Are the various genres of films appropriately represented in the list? Is any set of films overrepresented, say English-language films for instance?

    And do those “commonly accepted and quantifiable criteria” include the assessments of gender studies scholars? ethnic studies scholars? philologists outside of English? people with less training (are only PhDs and MFAs allowed, what about MAs, BAs, and the great unwashed and unlettered)? are people with less wealth included in generating these criteria?

    If you’re aware of the limitations involved, then you have sufficient humility to offer something that may at times look like a canon. But not one that claims to be objectively derived. Why not just put in the required qualifiers? Operating in a particular cultural/scholarly tradition, using particular methods, with particular values in mind, these are important works to us (unrepresentative group of) critics/scholars of the subject. Outside those qualifiers, all aesthetic bets are off.Report

  7. Avatar Maribou says:

    This was an excellent post, lovely to read.

    That said, I think when you further characterize the subjective – objective dichotomy as being “random and individual” vs “universally accepted”, you are doing the wielders of that dichotomy a disservice. Because usually their point is not that your tastes are random and individual, it’s *exactly* that they are socially constructed and subject to training by whichever society you happen to find yourself in. It is possible, by that way of thinking, that Monella is *very good at her job* of figuring out which wines best meet constructed standards, and that she takes great pleasure in her fit to those standards, but that her preference for wines she knows are “good” is not more meaningful than the taste of the guy who knows 4 different box wines and REALLY loves this one. (I do and don’t agree with that view – I think I agree with you more emotionally and I am fine with living existentially rather than worrying about which of my beliefs are literally true, as long as they don’t hurt anybody – but I try not to oversimplify it.)

    You are over-dichotomizing the dichotomy, I think?Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      (I will say, that I probably do agree with the view of aesthetic subjectivity delineated above, in that I really don’t think my view that such and such a book is good is more meaningful than someone’s all abiding love for Goosebumps novels. And yet, I don’t care all that much about their aesthetic appreciations unless they write about it really well or they’re standing in front of me wanting more stuff to read.)Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      This is a good point and definitely when I wrote that section I was thinking that it did not convey well what I had in mind. I think of objective vs. subjective as descriptive vs. emotionally expressive, or just “The sky today is blue” vs. “The sky today is overwhelming”. Certainly, emotional responses are conditioned by all sorts of things, some of which are societal or historical, and some of which are highly personal. Maybe the sky reminds me of a teacher who used to beat me or perhaps in my culture a blue sky means the gods are happy with us. But, either way, I don’t think it’s solely a matter of those things. In general, I think art is intended to evoke an emotional response of some sort, and it succeeds or fails to do so. To a great extent, I think that is conditioned by our personal history and societal beliefs. But, not entirely. A mother losing a child in a fire seems to me universally tragic, for example. It’s hard to imagine that being emotionally moved by a well-constructed story about a mother losing a child in a fire is purely a matter of societal beliefs. I’m not sure I’m clarifying anything here though!Report

  8. Avatar Kim says:

    Hm. Top 25 Movies. Good exercise.

    Lemon Popsicle
    Sayonara: Goodbye Me
    PeeWee’s Big Adventure
    Saint Clara
    Red Violin
    Wet Hot American Summer
    The Cook The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover
    The Crow
    Pulp Fiction
    The Usual Suspects
    Citizen Kane
    A Fish Called Wanda
    Women’s Private Parts
    Jesus Camp
    Silence of the Lambs
    The Good, The Bad, and the Weird
    The Nightmare Before Christmas
    One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    [Choose one of the Coen’s films]
    Blazing Saddles
    The Legend of the Drunken Master
    The Deflowering of Eva von End

    There are films that belong on a “best of” list, that I haven’t seen:
    A clockwork orange
    (hm. the rest have flown off).

    I cannot claim to be a serious film buff, but I’m certain any serious filmmaker has heard of all of these (or at least, almost all of them). Curiously enough, my “canon” is barely breached by his.

    25 is large, almost too large. Plenty of room for comedies, fun stuff in general (“good” popcorn films ought to be cherished too, it’s a genre in its own right).

    It’s large enough that I feel bad for putting nothing down from Bollywood, despite my relatively light familiarity with it.

    Can someone suggest some good Bollywood movies?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      The Good, the Bad, the Weird is one of the best things I’ve seen in some time. Thoroughly enjoyable. I keep recommending it to people who hated the last Indiana Jones movie.Report

  9. Avatar j r says:

    There’s a way around all of this. And it has to do with understanding that there are certain cases where it is appropriate to make objective statements and certain cases where you simply can’t.

    For instance. I can say objectively that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a more complicated piece of music than Fergie’s “My Humps.” I can say that playing jazz guitar takes more technical proficiency than playing three chord garage rock. I can say that the tasting menu at Per Se offers a more sophisticated palate than the number 1 meal at McDonald’s.

    Those are all objectively true statements (or at least they are all falsifiable statements). If you want to say that Beethoven or Pat Metheney or Per Se are just objectively better than Fergie or Kurt Cobain or McDonald’s, it gets more complicated.

    The way around it is to simply accept the subjective nature of taste and keep objective discussions to the areas where objective characterizations can be accurately evaluated.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      But lots of people dan’t have any interest in finding a way around it, understanding entirely that they are engaged in debates around claims that aren’t ultimately absolutely defensible on literal-truth basis.

      To some extent, these conversations operate on a baseline presumption that taste is subjective, but leave that view unstated because they end that the advancement and defense of claims about merit help get to exactly what it is that people do and don’t enjoy about works in a given genre.

      The question is whether there’s really any problem with leaving this acknowledgment unstated and not having claims in these conversations be explicitly governed by it. I don’t really see the problem myself.Report

  10. Avatar Kim says:

    I love appalachian jug wine. I know, I’m a philistine. Nonetheless, it is a good jug wine! Monella might find it “unflawed”, but also too grapey for her taste — it’s bold and brash and if you’re looking for subtle, try a different wine!Report

  11. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    One interesting thing to me aout these debates is that (in my limited experience of the academy), they are strictly para-academic. I.e., academics engage in them on the side of their academic work, either for parlor game amusement or for the reasons given in this post (the need to have some basis on which to compare subjective enjoyments of works). But the questions seem to have almost no place in actual academic practice, whether in scholarly writing or teaching?

    When was the last time an academic made aesthetic merit the central focus of any serious work? When was the last time a professor or TA actually set out to make ranking novels or paintings for simple aesthetic value the topic of a discussion section (I’m sure they get diverted to that subject all the time, but the main focus?).

    I suppose you could argue that it’s implicit in syllabi, but I really don;t get the sense that syllabi are constructed any more with an eye toward making an assertion that these are the objectively best works that students should read. Even a “Great Books” course like the U of Chicago has, as far as I am familiar with it, maintains that the reason for having that is not because these are the works that necessarily belong in the canon, but because they are the works that are on the canon for better or worse, and it prepares students best for the (imagined) world that U of C takes itself to be preparing them for to promote maximum familiarity and fluency with the canon. It’s a catechism, not a real literary agenda of its own. (I could be wrong about that.)

    I also suppose one could say, “Well, there are still editors at Norton working hard to put out the next editions.” Fair enough, fair enough. So that’s where the true institutional canon is preserved on the merits. Everywhere else, though, it seems to me this much as Rufus describes it – an analytical meeting point to try to hep align (inevitable) conversations and comparisons of the nature of our subjective experiences of art and literature. And by everywhere, I mean everywhere. B-horror movie aficionados and Cigar Aficionados and Civil War novel aficionados and hip-hop fans all do it in their spheres as much as any other group of people who identify with the enjoyment of some genre of cultural product (like Greek drama or Forentine fresco painting).

    What you think of that I suppose depends on how much you accept that claim about inevitability. But I think it’s important to point out that this is a much more informal, ubiquitous, and diverse process than it’s sometimes thought. In my mind that’s significant evidence for its inevitability in the way humans look at and discuss art.

    Or shorter me: well said, Rufus.Report

    • Avatar dhex says:

      “It’s a catechism, not a real literary agenda of its own. (I could be wrong about that.)”

      one quibble – the great books people who are serious about it are pretty serious about it being a literary agenda, or at least a counterweight to the relativism drowning us in a sea of substandard non-timelessness.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Fair. I imagine true believers are on faculty there. I think the pedagogical justification shifted from a merits one about the books to a “make them conversant in the dominant cultural establishment in order to promote success” one long ago. By long ago, perhaps I mean way too long to be relevant, like pre-WWI or something. I think you’re right that a post-pomo/multiculti reactionism has now circled back to a merits defense for the sake of intellectual conservatism. I kind of view that as an act, not the authentic reason for the Great Books approach. But again, I could be wrong about ALL of this.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        yes, but the people who founded that ideology would probably be mightily disappointed that their followers weren’t more iconoclastic.

        I think Calculus makes the strongest argument against the GreatBooks ideology.
        Mathematical formalism makes conveying a lot of scientific arguments a LOT QUICKER and easier to understand. While it might be fun to read Principia… It’s a hell of a lot harder than actually learning the principles as expressed economicallyReport

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:


        It’s a good point. I’ve always wondered how the science & math portion of the canon gets worked into broader science ed in the context of a GB approach that venerates the classics so much. I think there’s a clear separation in function: they don’t learn their math from the Principia; they study it (if they do?) as a “Great” historical work in the GB courses; use modren calc textbooks in math class, physics physics, etc.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Buchanan definitely mentioned the Principia (also the Origin of Species).
        Personally, I think this venerates scientists far too highly. (he may have also mentioned Freud — do you call him ‘fraud’? he was constantly being called that when he was alive… I do it because it’s funny).Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Buchanan? Is that a prof there? Didn’t know you attended, (if that’s what you’re saying).

        I’ll stop telling you about (possibly) your alma mater, except to say that I’d expect that on a campus with a GBs focus, math/physics profs might make more extensive passing references to the Principia, even give a lecture on it, than profs on other campuses do, but that does’t mean they’re mainly teaching their calc from it.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Nah, I didn’t graduate from there.
        Did read “Embers of the World” (which is a series of conversations with Scott Buchanan (who created that Great Books curriculum) with Harris Wofford Jr.).
        so I have a little more insight into “what the hell were they thinking” when they came up with this Great Books idea.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:


  12. Avatar Glyph says:

    Canons and hierarchies are another one of those “probable lies that humans require to stay sane”. Canons and hierarchies are at heart stories that help us feel as though we can make sense of the universe, and imbue it with significance and meaning.

    A canon or hierarchy says: “artist A innovated; artist B followed on or refined that innovation; artist C debased that tradition.”

    Or, “That guy used to be The Best, but then this gal came along, and now we know she’s The Best.”

    Without making value judgements, you are left with a non-story: “Some people did some stuff. I liked some of it.”

    We don’t do that when we are discussing history: it’s not enough to just say “there was a period of peace and prosperity, followed by a time of upheaval and war”; one period is presented as inherently better than the other, and we attempt to locate the causes and roots of one period in the other.

    But obviously, depending on who is telling the story and when, those periods may be descriptively reversed.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:


      People understand they’re making debatable and probably not ultimately resolvable claims. It’s just that making value as well as descriptive claims and then trying (and largely failing) to defend them is the way we’ve figured out how to move the ball down the field. Dialecticism; Sifting and Winnowing; all that crapola. The value claims are in there, as you say, in part just to help us keep track of why we care about any of it anyway.

      I suppose it’s fair to say all that actually is crapola. But it’s the way we’ve figured out to do it. It should be open to critique, but it’s gonna be pretty hard to switch it out for something else wholesale.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:


        “People understand they’re making debatable and probably not ultimately resolvable claims.”

        one hopes people understand that, at least. i am not as convinced on that front sometimes.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @dhex when it comes to music, it’s all about peer pressure.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        to some degree, sure.

        and perhaps a lot of this is basically nerd fencing*, as simon reynolds among others has argued, at least on the more passionate/insane levels of granularity.

        * which would make debates among fencing enthusiasts nerd fencing fencing**

        ** yes this also makes arguments between yard enclosure enthusiasts who like to swordfight fencing nerd fencing fencingReport

  13. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    I think you’ve generally nailed it here. What gets under my skin is the claim, or at least unspoken assumption, that certain genres are inherently better or more worthy than others. I think one thing that happens is that certain genres get judged on the basis of a limited set of exemplars while others are judged on the run-of-the-mill average stuff.

    I think that happens with classical music, but I likely do it as well, for instance, comparing the best of my favored classic rock against the mediocre bulk of disco, which I generally don’t care for. But actually the best of the disco era, like Donna Summer, is actually quite good in retrospect. I just got really tired of it at the time.

    The wine thing is interesting. I recall reading about a study that showed in blind taste tests that expectations, being told for instance that wine “A” was a more expensive vintage, caused people, even those with training and experience, to rate it more highly. Kind of a placebo effect. Which isn’t to say there aren’t better and worse wines, objectively. (My sister and her husband have a winery in Washington state.)

    Finally, I would note that we’re using words like better and best and worse a lot here. Awfully vague descriptors if you ask me.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      1960’s music, even the best stuff, is objectively worse than other pop music, though… because it was composed under the influence (and evaluated under the influence)…
      I don’t think music that needs altered consciousness to truly enjoy it is better than the alternative.Report