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  • Mere Formalities; or, How Canonicity Speaks Its Love
  • Nan Z. Da (bio)

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the SeaMark Twain, The Adventures of Tom SawyerJack London, Love of Life and Other Stories,    The Call of the Wild, The Sea-WolfWalt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

—American literary works that have influenced Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China, as mentioned in his talks in the Colloquium on Cultural Work , October 14, 2014, and later circulated on Chinese social media as “Big Boss Xi’s List of Books to Read ”

Eine über Dogmatik vermittelte Ideenevolution ist für die modern Gesellschaft nicht schnell genug. (Evolution of ideas through dogma is, for modern society, not fast enough.)

—Niklas Luhmann1

We cannot speak of the ongoingness of canons in contemporary discourse without talking about their most prevalent, banal, and embarrassing form: the rattling off of names of important and representative works in cross-cultural occasions ranging from casual conversations to state-sanctioned speeches on “cultural work.” If, as Luhmann claims, the concept of canonicity is historically singular—an inefficient way of transmitting ideas or values in modern society—then what do such formalities represent? In light of the persistence of genres of speech that invoke canonical lists, we must conclude that the canon itself has evolved—not only the things in it, or the way we feel about it, but in its very essence—from a thing that cannot keep up with modern communication to a thing that positively thrives in it. Empty forms teach us to catch the canon in its new semantic register.

Formality may not appear to be the most promising route for discovering the new criteria of meaningfulness we have imposed on the books we read or the social relationships embedded in those criteria (the [End Page 165] two basic concerns of canonicity). Formality is hardly the thing that will get literary scholars out of bed in the morning. For one thing, we should want to move toward less superficiality, not more. For another, we are, after all, purveyors of form—that is, meaningful relationships between the message of art and the shape that it happens to take. We are especially interested in distensions and asymmetries in these relationships—what Anahid Nersessian efficiently calls “irony.”2 Reading for irony occurs at all scales of literariness, from the poetic line to global networks of circulation. Even Bourdieu-inspired sociologies of literature, working at a far distance from tropes, lineation, or narration, return once and again to form’s asymmetries. When the canon of world literature thinks it represents constituents when in fact it symbolically represents the flows of capital, so goes the Bourdieuian argument: the result is either tokenism or false consciousness, but either way we find ourselves in the realm of irony. And because of the inherent discrepancy between books and the world in which they are made to circulate, such ironies are endless.

The difference between the hermeneutics of formality and form isn’t comfort with depthlessness. One can easily read ironically in genres where canonical works are explicitly not-read. In a much publicized interview for the magazine Outdoor Life, Vladimir Putin also named a couple of favorite classic authors: Jack London, Ernest Hemingway.3 Reading for irony, we notice the politics of this willfully selective representation of the American canon: the named writers freeze the image of American literary production into one of masculinist, rugged individualism that, in turn, makes Putin look rugged, masculine, and resourceful by association while providing certain leverage in a geopolitics that looks like passive-aggressive comparative literature. Books are tricky business in public relations. Xi Jinping’s own frequent, depthless uses of the canonical Dream of the Red Mansions to decorate institutional partnerships and diplomatic and trade alliances indicate a willful overlooking of content: a visit to Indonesia in 2013 that cited the Javanese exports that appear in Dream of the Red Mansions as an example of historical Sino-Indonesian exchange: a visit to France in 2014 that culminated in a celebration of the ongoing French translation of that novel at the Lyon Sino-French Institute. The dubious...


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