From the initial paragraphs of Ramsay’s The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around, I expected this article to be about how the massive uptick in availability of digital texts and modes of information access has affected the landscape of the canon™. As Ramsay writes, “What everyone wants—what everyone from Sargon to Zappa has wanted—is some coherent, authoritative path through what is known.”
As a poet, my reflex perception of the canon is not as a guide to reading, but as an expression of cultural power. Who gets lauded, who gets read and whose lens is authoritative? When I was an undergrad, I innocently appreciated the guiding principle of a body of great works; since then, however, I’ve felt alienated by it, pressured by it, far more than guided by it.
In the discussion of two modalities of research Ramsay highlights, search and browsing, there is no mention of what texts are discoverable. What are the power dynamics resident in their preservation, digitization and availability? This question doesn’t change just because there is so much more data available. Further, what lenses are guiding our inquiries? What questions are we asking? What led to us asking these questions? What are we interested in and why? How does authority manifest itself in the possibility space of inquiry in general? If history is written by the winners, and culture is grooved by authority, who are we anyway? Are we always defined in relation to our canons?
To the extent that we have freedom of choice, we can decide to browse into elements that are defined as relatively “off the beaten path”. Zappa can look for Varese. And Varese’s obscurity, I’m sure, formed no small part of his interest. But once we take the prismatic course of browsing, we come under the authority of search engines and availability, Google’s black box search engine, conditioned by the behavior of anonymous others, and unreported pay schemes to foreground certain sites and data, entities like JSTOR who shutter crucial information behind a pay wall, etc. So much more data is available now, it’s true — and iI’s nice to have “choice”, for sure — but we do have to recognize that the possibility space of said choice is limited by many forces beyond our immediate perception and control.
I love screwing around on the internet, pursuing one thing only to be surprised by another and changing direction — exposing myself to things I would never have run across in a directed search. I believe the Situationists called this derive.* It’s now my main mode of inquiry; and this might be true for most people who spend time on the internet. But to consider the derive as transforming one’s relationship to the canon would be a bit too optimistic a claim.
I realize, too, that what I’ve written about here is beyond the scope of Ramsay’s article — which sidesteps debate about canon-formation and boils down to an epistemology of research modalities. I want to end by saying I love reading Ramsay; like Carolyn, I appreciate his style and clarity. I’m trying to read the entirety of Reading Machines right now and keep stopping to soak in the pleasure of a new idea.
*Edit: I do want to note that the Situationists were very aware of the limits of serendipity in the derive, incorporating a recognition of what contraints are present even as we “screw around”.