Friday, January 6, 2012

Literary Order Defined in the Process of its Emergence

James Buchanan argued that
the "order" of the market emerges only from the process of voluntary exchange among the participating individuals. The "order" is, itself, defined as the outcome of the process that generates it. The "it," the allocation-distribution result, does not, and cannot, exist independently of the trading process. Absent this process, there is and can be no "order."
He of course is talking about the market order, but this is equally applicable to other spontaneous orders, including the literary order. The literary order is the outcome of the process of literary writers writing, and readers reading, resulting in feedback that creates patterns of literary production. How are literary works "allocated" and "distributed"? How do those differences affect the literary order?

Reading patterns -- which give rise to the literary canon -- emerge through the very process of reading, following recommendations of other readers (and of writers), etc. Those who argue that the literary (or other artistic) canon is what it is because of this or that group who are picking and choosing what is in the canon to perpetuate class, racial, gender, etc. interests are the same people who support socialism and interventionism for a reason -- they do not understand these processes are spontaneous orders, and do not believe order can emerge without someone creating the order.


  1. I don't understand this logic, Troy:

    "Reading patterns -- which give rise to the literary canon -- emerge through the very process of reading, following recommendations of other readers (and of writers), etc. Those who argue that the literary (or other artistic) canon is what it is because of this or that group who are picking and choosing what is in the canon to perpetuate class, racial, gender, etc. interests are the same people who support socialism and interventionism for a reason -- they do not understand these processes are spontaneous orders, and do not believe order can emerge without someone creating the order."

    Buchanan, for example, talks about crony capitalism and government interest distorting market order all the time.

    Isn't that the same as someone talking about the distortion of the literary canon in pursuit of a certain interest?

    Would it be fair to accuse Buchanan of "not beieving order can emerge without someone creating the order" simply because he recognizes that government interferes in market order sometime? Of course not.

    I don't think you're making very much sense here.

    Clearly people with specific interests in mind generate the canon that we have. That goes without saying, I think. You don't have to think emergent order of the arts or the market is impossible or doesn't also go on by recognizing that.

  2. You're missing my point. My point is not to argue that distortions do not occur -- no doubt there was literature that was suppressed by governments to such a degree that they have not been passed on to us. But those who argue against the canon we have now believe that there is a conspiracy of heterosexual European males who have rationally chosen the canon. They have this believe in no small part because they do not have a proper model of canon-creation. I am arguing that spontaneous order theory (particularly coupled with network theory) helps one understand canon formation, particularly once the arts became separated from religion. In fact, I would argue that only once one has an understanding of canon formation through spontaneous order processes can one actually detect real distortions.

    In other words, most current theories of canon formation are constructivist. They need to be replaced with a more sociological theory of canon formation. That is all I'm arguing. I was merely riffing off this particular piece by Buchanan, not dealing with his entire corpus -- though doing so would in fact bring up these kinds of questions.

    In other words, you missed my point -- but in a very productive way! :-)

  3. Well I don't know anything about theories of canon formation (my brother's worked with that - I may point him this way).

    But what you wrote sounded like it was simply a censure of people who suggested there was a historical instance of interventionism.

  4. No, it was intended to point out that rational constructivist theories of canon formation are wrong -- and that it's not surprising that these same people are constructivists in their economics, supporting socialism and interventionism in the economy.

    Rational constructivists who talk about the present and future are typically understood to advocate central planning (at its most extreme) or beneficial interventionism. Rational constructivists who talk about the past and present typically sound like conspiracy theorists. When you listen to humanities people who talk about how white European males chose the canon, or purposefully constructed laws to oppress women and minorities around the world, it sounds much like those conspiracy theorists who posit that the world is really run by this or that group. I think this is inherent in constructivist thinking. If you think order necessarily comes from an orderer (whether you support it, as socialists do, or oppose it, as right-wing conspiracy theorists do), then you are going to sound conspiratorial (unless you think the only orderer is divine).

    If you consider who is in the literary canon today in the West, you can explain it through spontaneous order theory. You don't need to posit a cabal of canon-planners trying to keep out women and minorities. This doesn't mean that immanent criticism of their low numbers in the canon isn't valid. Such criticism does in fact lead to more individuals becoming included, and that is generally a good thing. But one does not have to posit a past of constructivist canon formation to make such criticisms of the canon.

    Specifically, I was criticizing constructivist-only theories. Intervention is a fact, but one has to have a spontaneous order to intervene in -- otherwise, one has a rationally constructed order. And that's just nonsense.

  5. "If you consider who is in the literary canon today in the West, you can explain it through spontaneous order theory."

    Really? Explain James Joyce's presence in the literary canon today in the West. Though I'm a great admirer of Joyce on many levels, it is my belief that he would be utterly forgotten today, had it not been for generations of white males in literature departments requiring students to read his works - not because he was a fellow white male, but because his techniques provide them with something to explain to their students (and also because they - in Joyce's case, at least - sloppily and mistakenly assume a positive connection between the techniques of high modernism and socialism). Few people would willingly read Joyce at all otherwise.


  6. First, the exception does not negate the rule.

    Second, and much more importantly, I would consider Joyce to be an example of a writer who is unambiguously in the literary order, with no overlap into the other orders. Immanent criticism from the literary theorists (which included many feminists who pointed to him as an example of "feminine" writing) contributed greatly to his status -- as well as the fact that his work is extremely influential on literary fiction since Ulysses came out.

    There are temporal fads that fade -- but anyone who has survived this long with the reputation of Joyce does not fall into that category. So long as he continues to influence literary production, he's important -- he's a part of the history of the novel, and a part of a natural, evolving social process. There was no planning board of literary professionals who got together and decided "Let's make Joyce important." He spread through academia and the literary world through spontaneous order processes.

  7. I understand what you're getting at Troy, but I don't think it is quite so simple. "Spontaneous Order" of the canon variety depends upon intertextuality, which is certainly a kind of spontaneous reference system. For instance, I could read a work by Robert Browning and find many references/allusions to John Milton, but only as long as a certain kind of intertextual canon is in place. From Milton I might find Homeric or Virgilian references, or I might jump forward to Matthew Arnold's terrible blank verse poems, or even to Tennyson's sometimes brilliant "Miltonic" poems; or I might turn to Byron/Dryden/Pope, which were a counter-Miltonic legacy.

    But in order to credit that canon with authority, it must be channeled through a notion of "High art" propagated by the university. The university (as I argue in a forthcoming Mises Daily--shameless plug) is a regulatory board patterned upon the guild mentality. It is inherently conservative and precapitalistic in its design, and thus it tends to try to incorporate works into a kind of canon mentality--the approved works for the zeitgeist, so to speak.

    Joyce fits in with the postmodern clique, because he gives them something to foil their own exploits with. You can make anything out of Joyce (and I do enjoy him at times). I'm no Hegelian, but the guild mentality tends to define itself by watered-down oppositions--look at the success of Deconstruction and Structuralism, for instance. They're predicated on the "binary opposition" and tend to define "A" by all instances of "non-A." Hence, "A" is "B" "C" "D", etc., ad infinitum. The university's canon is selected with a particular pattern and ideology, and not the spontaneous kind we find by tracking back through Browning to Milton.

    The canon is always tied to the mentality of hte university. In secular/socialistic departments, the Miltonic legacy is not strong. They libel that canon as the "dead white male" canon--I've heard it a million times myself when declaring my roots in Milton/Butler/Dryden/Pope/American Colonials (who took after Pope and Milton). The old-timers tend to hold strong to older university canons established by guys like Samuel Johnson, Edmund Malone, and Sir Walter Scott--the biographers and commentators who provided the material and opinions for canon formation in English.

    The new canon is largely a product of inflated commentary on secondrate books that have not had time to stand the test of time in the university.

    (Some scattered thoughts)

  8. Universities are the ones publishing the hyper-edited editions--the authoritative Oxford/Cambridge conundrum--of works and the variorum editions. They have had incredible influence on canon formation. The "spontaneous" intertextual canon, we must admit, is quite old and requires a certain kind of educational background in Latin/Greek studies. Even that canon requires some specialization, which again is obtained under university guildsmen/women, each of whom has claimed some kind of ideological allegiance these days.

  9. Actually, what you are describing, it seems to me, is a move from spontaneous order-created canon to increasingly interventionist-created canon. This doesn't undermine the idea of the canon being a product of spontaneous order forces -- it only argues that we see increasing top-down influence. Of course, that top-down influence could be argued to be immanent criticism, and thus a natural part of the spontaneous order.

    The fact that there are those who are big players in a spontaneous order -- including big critics -- doesn't undermine the theory that literary production and influence is a spontaneous order. Scale-free networks have a few highly-connected nodes (and a medium number of medium-connected nodes, and a large number of few-connected nodes, in a power law distribution), and those highly-connected nodes are the big players. But there's no central planning committee, nor is there even interventionist-like elements per se. People are free to read what they want, and to be influenced by what they want. Shakespeare has far more influence on literature than even Ben Jonson. If you want to better understand Western literature (and even much non-Western literature) since Shakespeare, you have to read Shakespeare. If you want to better understand pop culture, you have to read Shakespeare. That's not because there was anyone -- even big universities like Oxford and Cambridge -- pushing Shakespeare. It is because authors are inspired by his works more than by most other authors.

    One could look at the economy in a similar fashion. Why is Walmart such a big company? Because they were privileged by economics departments? Hardly. They're not even particularly privileged by governments (who on the local level at least seem to try to keep Walmart out). It is because they came up with a good business strategy. That strategy's genealogy can be traced back to stores like K-Mart, and its influence can be seen in the other big box stores that emerged since then. Spontaneous order forces created the Walmart strategy imitated by many other stores. Were there regulations? No question. Were there criticisms that resulted in changed? No question. Do either of these undermine the idea of the pattern of distribution developed by Walmart as a part of a spontaneous order? Not at all.

    Finally, there are always fads. One does not pay much attention to them. There is the true canon -- created by spontaneous order forces -- and there is the fad canon of the current crop of immanent critics, many of which will fall by the wayside, some of which will no doubt become part of the true canon.