I read a really interesting post over on io9 this week by Editor James Whitbrook: Our Fascination With Canon Is Killing the Way We Value Stories
As the pop culture we love becomes increasingly dominated by vast franchises of interconnected worlds and stories, so does it become dominated by one, singular question from diehard fans: Is the thing we’re about to consume canon to everything else we’ve consumed before? It’s an attitude that’s turning our love of stories into some bizarre, archival competition.Our Fascination With Canon Is Killing the Way We Value Stories
The piece is a short sharp blast of very fresh air. Whitbrook covers a lot of great points in quick succession which I would like to explore in some more detail. I’m also writing this to distract a little from you know *gestures at everything*.
Whitbrook addresses how some franchise fans use the concept of ‘canon’ to assess if a piece of media Matters or Not. How the concerns around canon influence media commentary and the media ecosystem. How concerns around ‘canon’ breed a toxic attitude amongst fans that ‘leads to things like “filler episode” becoming a derogatory term for stories that don’t advance the larger ongoing plot of a narrative’. It also brings up ‘fandom’ gate keeping by overvaluing facts and information (lore) rather than narratives and emotional responses.
It’s brilliant and a must read if you are interested in story worlds and media.
You’ll notice that if you visit the article the original title of the article was ‘Craving Canon’ and is still visible in the page metadata.
It’s an interesting turn of phrase, given the subject matter. I can see why it was changed in the main headline. There certainly ARE people who crave canon, and use it as a yardstick to measure media produced in/about a story world.
Canon of course is a Biblical term. A set of texts (or “books”) which a religious community regards as authoritative scripture. Western culture however secular it may think itself is deeply influenced by its millennia of Christianity. As we’ll come to later appealing to Authority is a human behaviour that drives much of the obsession with canon.
Canon as a term in literature originates with Sherlock Holmes. The Sherlock canon consists of the 56 short stories and four novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.Canon of Sherlock Holmes (Wikipedia)
In this context, the term “canon” is an attempt to distinguish between Doyle’s original works and subsequent works by other authors using the same characters.
If you have been following along for a while, I’ve written (well I say written, they were actually scripts) on fandom, narrative, and problems with where we are with story worlds in 2020 quite a bit.
I’m going to repost links to the full podcast episodes incase anyone wants to take 10/15 mins to get up to speed. If not, then I’ve quoted myself here and there quite self indulgently.
[Media property name] Isn’t Your Friend
People feel so strongly about what happens to characters in fiction worlds owned by gigantic mega corporations because they identity with them. But unlike humanity’s entire history of storytelling, characters that capture the collective imagination in 2020 are owned and controlled by corporate interests. Which means they have no _agency_ within the mythos. In a literal sense people who consume the stories have no ownership over them.
“Deep engagement with mythos should give people agency within those realms. But when our entire cultures narrative is privatised – what can people do apart from fold it into the culture war? We should really start to think about antitrust laws for culture.”Media property name] Isn’t Your Friend
There has been a sanitising effect on stories. Copyright, the ownership of stories, and the desire for profit has had a disastrous effect on our collective mythos. Whilst I pick on Disney in the episode, the same is true all across the board. Disney profited from the conversion of powerful and dangerous folk tales in to children’s stories.
The meat of this episode however is an attempt to explain why I do not like any of the new Star Wars movies.
“I tapped out the day they announced they were going to blow up the canon.
I’d been suckered.
It was all a waste of time, energy and money. That a corporation can blow up a huge fictional universe in order to sell a new one to other people was gualling. I thought it would all be there forever and suddenly it wasn’t. I’d been betrayed by a corporation and I decided never again.”Media property name] Isn’t Your Friend
One of the things that really interested me in Star Wars as a kid in the early 90’s was that Star Wars was the fact it was one big coherent world. I used to pour over the Dorling Kindersley Visual Dictionaries. Basically I loved the canon.
I remember reading with fascination in the Star Wars monthly magazine about the guy who worked in the Lucas film archives. It was hard to believe that there was a job solely devoted to knowing everything there is to know about Star Wars. Advising on the history, lore and viability of licensees ideas and deals.
I learnt about the various levels of canon.
- The word of God (Lucas + the movies) or G-canon.
- C-canon or Continuity canon: Material from the Expanded Universe including books, comics, and video games
- S-canon was Secondary canon (stuff that wan’t very good like the infamous holiday special
There were more types, but you get the point. Canonicity in the Star Wars story world was officially nuanced with various levels of ‘truthiness’. Nuance seemingly being something that has dropped off the map now most discussion has moved online.
Check out this 2008 interview with Leland Chee. The ‘Holocron keeper’
As I explain in the Episode. I felt Disney’s decision to ‘Blow up the canon’ and restructure it to better suit their corporate intentions was an insult to people who had stuck with, and had obsessed over the franchise during the wilderness years. By people I mean me, personally. ‘Facts’ about the universe was one of the things that drove the franchise forwards for decades between the original trilogy and the prequels. The stormtrooper banging his head, other bloopers, the Wilhelm scream. Even the total nerd world of what different length light sabres came with which model of Obi Wan on which card variant with what stickers.
Product knowledge aside. Disney blew up a world I had read about, obsessed over and cared about deeply. All that effort, all the time (and money) was worthless – so I tapped out. [Media property name] wan’t my friend.
I’ve seen the new films obviously, but I have no emotional attachment to them, or in fact the older movies.
As I’ve grown older I don’t even like films as a medium any more, or TV for that matter. The Dark Knight ruined contemporary cinema in 2008. Speed Racer was the much much better movie that year.
Spider-Man’s MCU No Deal Webxit
In the Spiderman Webxit episode: I re-articulated some of my thoughts from the episode above, talked about toxic fan wars and for the first time explored the idea ‘Cultural Fracking’ .
A term which funnily enough makes an appearance in this months Lightspeed magazine by way of Andrew Dana Hudson. He is interviewed about his Voice of Their Generation short story that involves the movie titled ‘Detective Pikachu vs. Predator’
In the interview Hudson sums up cultural fracking succinctly:
“Cultural Fracking”—the capitalist process of endlessly extracting new value out of the sedimentary layers of meaning that comprise mass culture from the past.ADH – Lightspeed Magazine (Issue 119)
I explored Cultural Fracking in more detail during my talk at Unsound Festival 2019 in Poland. I’m dropping an edit of my transcript below as I’m also trying to write about Cultural Fracking for Holum Press. This blog post seems like an excuse to construct a first draft.
Today everyone knows or gets Simpsons quotes. Even if they haven’t seen the episode that they come from. Or people get that “I’ll be back” is a reference to the Terminator even if they wen’t born at the time of the movies release. Meaning from a time Pre-internet. When there was a high chance that everyone was exposed to the same media. And so society/culture shared memetic grammars.
One of the challenges that a company like Disney faces in the age of the internet is that is becoming harder and harder to make money from them. The reason being; Franchises were created in a media environment where everyone would have been exposed to them and would therefore have shared the cultural grammar.
What’s happening today is that companies sell narrative/stories as a commodity. To extract value from them media organisations have to continually return to or frack the sedimentary layers of meaning. These elements of shared grammar in mass culture in order to continue to make money.
Their business model relies on selling to mass culture. So any new product has to continually reference something from a time when everyone shared the same mass culture still existed. In order for a mass cultural product to be attractive, it is required to meet the shared expectations of the audience.
It’s not that all the reboots, remakes and nostalgic mashups like Ready Player One are unoriginal. It’s that under the logic of a capitalist cultural monopoly, commodity owners have to continually frack the past from a time when a collective cultural grammer still existed to still make money.SOLARPUNK – Life in the Future Beyond the Rusted Chrome of Yestermorrow
What I’ve just spent the last x mins talking about is people feeling emotionally invested in multinational conglomerates business deals about whether one character gets to appear in someone else’s story. neither of which the folks that consume those stories own.Spider-Man’s MCU No Deal Webxit
Perhaps Marcuse was right, class consciousness IS all about aesthetics.
At the beginning of One-Dimensional Man Marcuse writes, “The people recognise themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment,” meaning that under capitalism (in consumer society) humans become extensions of the commodities that they buy, thus making commodities extensions of people’s minds and bodies.
Perhaps I have belaboured the point about story ownership. But its something I feel strongly about, and also the only thing missing from Whitbrook’s piece. As the points it raises dovetail so well with thinking about copyright and ownership of cultural property.
I think the reason people value content set in a story world as ‘canon’ is precisely because it is owned and controlled by one entity.
The owner of a media franchise represents a single sovereign source of truth for that story world. And we know that if there is an entity that gets to claim ‘truth’ of a story world or reality, then it will be appealed to. Again we bring up ‘people of the book’ Christianity, The Bible, and its different relationships to the apocrypha and the gnostic gospels etc.
But the Idea that a single entity gets to say what stories are and aren’t True/Canon in a story world (aside from the church) is a relatively new one.
This is not how stories have worked throughout the rest of human history
Tell me a tale
Here’s ol buddy ol pal Huw Lemmey writing in his newsletter Utopian Drivel on Storytelling last year ($) on Arthurian Legend and Robin Hood:
Tell me a tale. Don’t write me a story. But tell: tell meaning to reveal, to divulge. In story-telling, the stories already exist; the richness, the innovation, is in the manner of their revelation. That’s how it used to be. The internal monologue of the single narrator, the voice, was not the engine of the story, and invention was not the prized skill. Those are characteristics of what came later, when the cheap printed book individualised the story into the aptly named novel.
Before that, stories were collective property, collectively told. The same characters came round and round again in different formations, with different emphasis.
If written today Sir Gawain would be regarded as part of the Camelot Extended Universe; a set of tales, legends and poems of the court of the fabled ancient British king who resisted against the Saxon invaders, only to be defeated with the prophecy of a future reincarnation when the nation would need it most. Arthur emerged in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-history of Britain, Historia Regum Britanniae, although certainly from earlier legends, before becoming part of the Matter of Britain, a cycle of mediaeval and mythic literature about Britain and Brittany. In the process, Arthur became a mythos, a body of mythological works from which new stories could be retold, reusing plotlines, developing competing personalities and histories, adding depth and nuance to characters who go beyond characters to become archetypes.
The mythos of shared cultures provides a rich seam for the culture industry to exploit, yet the development through the twentieth century of a punitive and restrictive form of intellectual property has been something of a cultural enclosure of, if not pre-existing mythos, then certainly the tendency to build new ones. The opportunity for any of us to retell Robin Hood in any form we like, shaping the story to teach new lessons and provoke new responses, remains, but the myths created from our previous century — from Superman to Harry Potter — remain trapped in profitable stasis. Of course, anyone raised on them will find the archetypes invaluable for explaining and retelling stories of their own world, but they can remain only cheap analogies — anything with broader implications, with more resonance, with a bigger audience, will end in a visit from the lawyers.Story Telling – Utopian Drivel
As an aside, I’m really looking forward to Dev Patel in A24’s Green Knight. I also look forward to (dread) the angry online nerds ranting about it for presumably racist and ill informed reasons. Also I will seek-out folks trying to apply canon rules to the mythos.
I also wonder how folks are going to handle Dev Patel as Sir Gawain launching into the MRA style rant he has in the castle about how he should “attack of all women for their deceptiveness and treachery” (W.Neilson Trans. 1999).
Ursula Le Guin writing in her forward for Tales from Earthsea in 2001 also says something similar to Huw Lemmey in 2019. Of particular note is the argument that characters have to be made safe (sanitised) due to corporate ownership, and how they are treated as commodities.
There are however some story worlds in 2020 that don’t operate with arbitrators of truth. I would be interesting to draw up a 2×2 of worlds in the popular imagine and classify them by the amount of agency fans of the series are perceived to have. This might be fun, but it is an exercise for another day.
In the meantime I’ve picked two off the top of my head that still operates as a story world open to audience agency.
The Canon-thulhu Mythos.
It seems you can’t shake a stick at anything on kickstarter made by fans right now without a bit of Tentacle or Eldritch horror falling out. Creeping horror our environment and collective psyche aside
There are two reasons for this:
- Lovecraft was extremely generous with his own works and actively encouraged others to borrow ideas from his stories, particularly with regard to his Cthulhu mythos. By “wide citation” he hoped to give his works an “air of verisimilitude”, and actively encouraged other writers to reference his creations, such as the Necronomicon, Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth. After his death, many writers have contributed stories and enriched the shared mythology of the Cthulhu Mythos, as well as making numerous references to his work.
- Lovecraft’s work/mythos is out of copyright. Most of Lovecraft’s works that were published in the amateur press are most likely now in the public domain.
The Lovecraft story world IS a collective property. A world in which stories are collectively told. The same characters can come round and round again in different formations, with different emphasis. Without fear of corporate reprisal.
It also (to my mind) seems to be treated differently from the canon craving world of Sherlock Holmes. There IS a list of lovecrafts work, but as a fandom (eugh I really hate that word) they prefer to focus on the ‘Greater Cthulhu Mythos’. A poster on reddit a few years ago craving canon asked the following question.
Q: New to the Cthulu Mythos, how do you decide what’s canon or not?
Isn’t anything not written by Lovecraft technically just fanfiction, no matter how well known? What distinguishes the accepted books from something on fanfiction.net?
This line of thinking was quickly disabused and diffused wonderfully:
A: The Cthulhu Mythos is a shared universe. While Lovecraft’s work is indisputably at the center of it, he was constantly sharing ideas with other writers and encouraging them to join in. It grew from there, and continues to grow.
I personally don’t concern myself with what’s “canon” or not at all. What’s important is how entertained I am by what I’m reading.
I personally don’t particularly like Lovecraft (I know I know) and its world, I’ve never really seen the attraction. But I have always liked seeing the world re-conjured and remade with every person that plays in that world. whether it be RPGs, short collections, film, art, or whatever.
The Cthulhu Mythos’ popularity in 2020 (in my mind) however has nothing to do with the enduring themes of the world itself, and can instead be almost solely be attributed to the lack of copyright in the later part of the 20th Century. And most importantly the lack of permission needed to explore/play in its story world/mythos.
In my estimation, since the D-day explosion of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The story world of Warhammer 40k owned by Games Workshop is possibly the biggest coherent story world of any franchise in the world.
It is of course owned by a single entity, but as a company they have a very laissez faire attitude towards canon. They approach things with an eye toward what is true ‘In Universe’. Given that in the world of 40k there’s 10k years of history, most of it lost. Means that its ALL myth, rumour, and unreliable narrators. As fans, who read the books, and rulebooks etc. We know more about the universe of 40k than its inhabitants.
It’s an attitude that has become predominant not just within fandom circles itself, but in the media commentary that has developed around these fandoms and the blockbuster franchises that dominate our popular culture. Critics and fans alike are now less interested in actually interpreting a piece of media thematically or to engage with why they liked or disliked it, but instead to pick it apart and break it down to the base components of what are, essentially, its pure, unflinching facts. Google Star Wars or the Marvel movies and you will likely see as many articles and videos with headlines like “X Confirms Y is Canon,” “X Questions Answered By [New Media],” or “X Things We Learned About Character Z in This New Book/Movie/TV Show” as you will critical essays about these stories, if not more.Our Fascination With Canon Is Killing the Way We Value Stories
The concern with canon of course is present in the Warhammer 40k community online too. So when you read a 40k novel or whatever there’s plenty of published material that contradicts other material. This definitely winds up a certain segment of the fanbase no end. As they expect the world to operate like the MCU or something. You only need to search ‘canon’ in the 40k lore subreddit to see how obsessed some elements of the quote unquote ‘fandom’ are.
Interestingly enough this topic is seemingly in the air. Youtube Loremaster Luetin09 posted a 24 minute long video today on the subject of Canon in Warhammer 40k. “The notion of canon is a fallacy in 40k”.
One of the most important points in the io9 essay I think is the following:
But this craving for it above all else is a toxic attitude, not just to the way we talk about pieces of media from a critical perspective, but in fan circles as well. The hunger for facts above all else leads to things like “filler episode” becoming a derogatory term for stories that don’t advance the larger ongoing plot of a narrative or don’t include some shocking new revelation that someone can add to a list. It predicates the gatekeeping act of being a fan that is built on how much you know about a thing over whether you actually enjoy that thing or not.Our Fascination With Canon Is Killing the Way We Value Stories
Games Workshops world of warhammer 40k isn’t supposed to have a canon. It grew out of a RPG and is a story world primarily concerned with allowing people to play their own games, and tell their own stories inside their world.
As far as I’m concerned: All fan fiction for Warhammer is basically unverified canon. It’s just as valid as the official stuff tbh. All the deaths of main characters on the table top due to poor dice roles is canon. Roboute Guilliman the Primarch of the Ultramarines has died a 1000 times across 1000 tabletops. And he will continue to die over and over again. My Ork Nob from Gorkamorka ‘Ardy Ed Nutter’ was brutally cut down in glorious chaos multiple times, and he was alive again the next week to try again.
There is something horrible awful about folks that like to think their knowledge of a story world is proportional to their love of it. I get/appreciate the tendency. But you don’t need to be a fanatical twitcher to love birds.
People craving canon IS really toxic. In addition to being a tool for gatekeeping, it also prevents people from speculating on, or reflecting on the material. Themes, Cultural Critique or even pointing out that a characters arc is very similar to another archetype or borrowed greek myth is frowned upon by those who crave canon. When you read online posts, or watch commentary on youtube of films etc, it seems that the motivations of characters in a story world are only allowed to exist within their own closed story ecosystem, blind to the context of culture at large.
You are not allowed to say “I think Batman installing illegal and hidden surveillance software on everyones phones in Gotham is extremely bad” without being shouted down. And believe me when I say I have been on the receiving end of the shouting.
I agree wholeheartedly with Whitbrook again when he points out:
It’s an attitude that in turn feeds the equally unruly and constantly growing spoiler culture because a fandom that values pure details above all else puts weight in the knowledge of those details. The need robs discussions about the stories we get of nuance and interpretation, because who cares what you think happened when there’s an answer from the Word of God to that question you might have had? And more sinisterly, beyond the way it shapes our discourse, it’s a craving that further enmeshes our love of a world not to the world itself, but to the masters behind that world.Our Fascination With Canon Is Killing the Way We Value Stories
I could double the length of this already bloated post by really getting into spoiler culture and spoilers. Instead I’ll point you towards Whitbrook again. and just say.
Spoiler culture is insane.
I really don’t care about spoilers at all. Why does anyone care about them? or not knowing whats going to happen? This 2014 article by Hestia Peppe on spoilers is really great:
It recently occurred to me that the whole thing about spoilers is that they pretty much constitute a gag on critical discussion of narrative in public. This happened at an academic conference panel on ‘sitting with uncomfortable ideas’ in which a popular Netflix series was raised as a point of intersection between two complex ideas and was met with literal screams of “No Spoilers! Please!” and the discussion instantly and by consensus ceased entirely. As someone who’d seen the series in question and was mourning the lost opportunity to triangulate a rather disjointed conversation, I turned to my friend and said, “can you imagine that happening in a discussion of English Literature?”The Shimmering Go-Between – Lee Klein
I was talking about the plot of the previously mentioned Green Knight movie in the pub (back when we were still allowed outside) and several friends at the table got cross about spoilers. I’m really not sure that you can shout “Spoilers” or spoil about a 14th-century Arthurian poem that has a deep ongoing influence on European culture. I would even go as far to say (IMO) that any hard boiled crime or cyberpunk hero has a bit of Sir Gawain in them. In the poem he has no inward, moral, emotional, and spiritual qualities and there is little evidence in the story that any inward qualities matter much to him at all. Just like ‘DOOM guy’ tbh.
The same also happened to me with Dune. It’s a 55 year old book??? But apparently because it’s going to be a movie this/next year I’m not allowed to talk about one of my favourite books.
In almost all cases, (I believe) narrative and the types of worlds those narratives are situated in are enriched by foreknowledge and pre critique. throughout all of history it would have been the same stories re-spun by someone with a good imagination and loud voice over and over again. Everyone round the campfire or in the pub would have been familiar with stories being told. And in the more recent past it would have been the stories and parables of the Bible. It blows my mind that people don’t immediately see the story of the Nativity In Children of Men, or the Christ Allegory in Robocop. Anyways…
Spoiler culture and the associated ‘post eventum’ craving for facts do indeed rob discussion of stories of nuance and interpretation.
For example going into the new Dune films knowing that the whole damn thing is a critique of power, and the savour narrative would benefit everyone. Especially the hot take discourse that has already even started before the movie has come out about saviour narratives. The author told us explicitly what this story was about.
It’s only possible to consume media like this if you thinking in a post modern mode. Spoiler Culture, and Craving of Canon are in many ways children of Derrida. There is ‘Nothing Outside the Text’. And yet, the ownership of culture as a commodity is still in a Modernist mode.
The rise and rise of Table Top and DnD role play I think is one of the first green shoots in this regard. It is/was a return to collective story telling that grew up alongside Drama’s deletion of the performer spectator divide in the 1970’s to create something that was in fact premodern.
So What Do?
The ownership of culture by corporations and the lack of agency that the people who love and consume that culture in the modern world is a problem that needs solving with some urgency. How do we do that? What does it even mean to have agency in a story world?
I’m obviously going to bang a Solarpunk drum in the closing paragraphs of this #GNDN blogpost. Perhaps fortuitously timed as a small/short response to Paul Graham Ravens recent and extremely thoughtful post on solarpunk.
Solarpunk is a collective ‘memetic engine’. A cultural construct or media tool to power and provide the ‘re-futuring’ of our collective imaginations.
This is narrative as a battleground. Guerrilla war against those who get to tell stories of the future, what kinds, and who gets to own them. Solarpunk as genre (or mode) is an Memetic Engine to spin out new futures int he minds of people who encounter the genre. Designed to self-replicate.
Solarpunk as a collective is ‘worlds’ first. Possible worlds, desirable worlds, or worlds in which humanity works feverishly to avoid other ones. These are all worlds that we can step into for a moment at any time. It is a set of narratives and stories / books second. The only canon is the tale of the tree you planted, or the cover crop you sowed.
One of the key words in the Solarpunk community is Polyphony. Above all one cannot speak for other Solarpunks, only be in dialogue and occasional chorus with them. Dissonance brings texture to this world.
The solarpunk community as I see it talks about the worlds it creates as being concerned with the “struggles en route to a better world”. It does not reduce climate change to a singular event but understands it as an unfolding process or crisis and opportunity..
Within Solarpunk you will find a diversity of opinion on what ‘better’ even means. It isn’t one total future or world. Its many many local ones.
This frustrates many of its critics. But thats ok. Living with indeterminacy is the biggest feature of all our futures real or imagined. It is not a bug.Solarpunk as Memetic Engine – Jay Springett – Unpublished 🙁
I’m not entirely sure that I personally have any concrete proposals other than encouraging others to write, tell and create their own stories. Build worlds with friends and colleagues. Play in them, test them, and discard them if they don’t work for you.
But pick a story world you would like to spend some time in and walk backwards facing it until you reach today. This also includes your street, window sill and community etc.
Or pick multiple futures and worlds that could be possible. Find fellow travellers who likes the destination and and set off together.
Following a brief DM thread with Matt from xenogothic.com regarding the several off hand allusions to the influence of Christianity on the craving for canon. I explored it a little bit more during this weeks podcast: