Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Yearning for Canon

What is canon?  I'll encounter this thought every time I see some absurd take on an old story, like the gnawing death-by-treacle horror of the Star Wars Christmas Special, or Klingons hawking Christmas ornaments.  Et tu, Gowron?

" this canon?"  comes the snicker.  Of course it isn't.  Not because it's silly, but because of something fundamental about the nature of canon.

Canon serves a mythic function in human storytelling.  Myth and canon are deeply interwoven.  What does that mean?  First, what is myth?

Myths aren't lies or falsehoods, but rather the tales that come to define us.  The actions and relationships they describe inculcate the archetypes that integrate personal and cultural self-understanding.  Which is a fancy pants way of saying that they tell us who we are, and how we are to live.  

That process is organic, collective, and recursive.  Which, again, is an overly arcane way of saying that we tell stories, which then define us and their own retelling.  Those defining tales change over time, in the way things naturally evolve, with new emphases being introduced.  They grow and change as language grows and changes, particularly when one set of narratives steps into encounter with another.  When we hear new stories from others, we fold them into our own.

Within cultures, some become canon, as the relationship between the tales and the culture matures and reaches equilibrium.  It becomes a self-sustaining ecosystem of identity formation.  It becomes "canon."

Canon is not something imposed from above.  It's a collective process of discernment, a choosing of what is and is not defining.  It gives a sense of self, and a common ground between those who share it.  It binds a people together across generations.

The process of canon within my own faith tradition was long and messy.  It was a wild ride, with intrigue and politics and conflict upon conflict.  But where it settled...on an interlaced latticework of variant tellings of the story of Jesus and the insights of his followers...contains both variety and a sense of common purpose.  It was a work of the Spirit, or so I am convinced.

Because canon is held in common, and is the thing that holds us in common, it cannot be changed lightly or easily.  

This is where corporate myth-making fails.  Corporate mythmaking and the "universes" it creates are of a completely different character than organic mythmaking.  Corporate narratives, like propaganda, have an ulterior motive.  They are not told for the joy of the telling.  They are told for profit.  They're product, "intellectual property."  Like all products, they must be produced and purchased, over and over again.  Old stories must be cast aside, not because they no longer speak to the human condition, or because they are no longer relevant.  It is because they are not sufficiently profitable.   If only the old stories are told, then the new stories cannot be sold.  The retelling of stories becomes less about the joy of a new take on a telling, and instead follows the logic of planned obsolescence.

Myth that is marketized ceases to be mythic.  Nor can it be meaningfully "canon," because it is constantly in flux, constantly being rebooted and repackaged.  It loses the capacity to provide meaning, to be the narrative measure which frames our world.  Mythic tales are not intellectual property.  They cannot be copyrighted.  They cannot be owned.  

In the absence of that stable common narrative, cultures decohere.  They lose their shared identity.  Individuals struggle to find a sense of self, as ever changing narratives leave them not just uncertain of their world, but uncertain of themselves, trapped in an endless adolescence.