Morrissey and Canonicity


Morrissey’s first book, his own Autobiography, came straight out as a Penguin Classic at the end of 2013, ‘a move’ – says Telegraph reviewer Neil McCormick – ‘that has offended purists – something that, [h]e suspects, was always part of [Mozza’]s intention.’ On the book’s back there is not the normal standout quotation from its inside in orange type, but instead this statement at the end of the blurb: ‘it has been said ‘most pop stars have to be dead before they reach the iconic status that Morrissey has reached in his lifetime.’’ Indeed, the death of the author is one of the prerequisites that the literary canon has been criticised for; its containing a majority of ‘dead white men’ or ‘DWEM’ (dead white European males) becoming a recognised bone of contention popularly paraded as a staple in the right-on academic lecture and essay.

The canon (not only literary, but that encompassing all art; musical, performing and expressive, plastic, etc.) is a cultural compendium built on conceptions of taste, on judgement, and on anthologisation; one with an incredible and chequered history of debate and contention, from Immanuel Kant’s philosophical accounting for aesthetics in The Critique of Judgement to T. S. Eliot’s argument in the essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ that ‘no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison among the dead.’

One argument for canonicity – a socio-historical argument – appears in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s assertion that  human life confronts itself from one side of the globe to the other and speaks to itself in its entirety through books and culture’. In Kant there is to be found this statement’s philosophical underpinning: ‘only in society’, he claims, ‘is it interesting to have taste’; that is, taste is not interesting in and of itself – i.e., a priori – but becomes a foundation of society. This is thus a statement which can just as well apply to the high society and haut couture of the connoisseur as it can to the analytical and activist fields of the commentator or sociologist. Indeed, as Kant argues in the Critique, ‘fine art […] is a mode of representation which is intrinsically purposive, and which, although devoid of an end, has the effect of advancing the culture of the mental powers in the interests of social communication.’ In itself ‘purposive without purpose’ (as Alenka Zupančič describes Kant’s formulation), art’s cathexis hooks onto the world – as utilisable in shaping and critiquing it – through its aesthetico-cultural import.

But when it comes to canonising this art it is judgement (that is, most often, the hierarchical privileging of a certain judgement over any other) that determines things; and in his Autobiography it is judgement and jurisprudence that Morrissey exerts his most virulent polemical energy on. In commenting on the trial of Oscar Wilde, he asks:

‘How does British society identify wayward judges? It doesn’t, because it isn’t allowed to. Identification can only be made by yet another judge, who is unlikely to point the finger at a colleague lest suspicion is returned from whence it came. When is a judge ever asked to account for his own words? Never. Barbarity might mount upon barbarity, but the British public has no legal right to question a judge on the grounds of bias – not even in a democratic society. But what if a judge could be proven to have been biased? One would need to convince another judge of this first, and no judge would ever be prepared to blow that particular whistle. If one fell, they’d all fall.’

This precedes and foreshadows the somewhat laborious forty or so pages concentrated on the court case brought against Morrissey by former Smith Mike Joyce, presided over by the not so right-on-erable judge John Weeks, and Morrissey’s long-held resentment over it all. However, these reflections of Morrissey’s show that whilst the Autobiography may present an alternative to the identikit, ghost-written autobiographies of ‘the pap of pop’ (in Mozza’s words) – which highlights the classic’s modern status as the alternative; that is, to the best-selling, eminently pulpable mainstream – what also becomes apparent as at stake in this book instantly published as a Classic, which contains such an internal critique of judgement, is the process of canonisation’s immanent subversion. In other words, through not allowing the public even to have the chance to deem the book classic or not Morrissey and Penguin may seem to be acting as an Eliot-the-Great-Editor guarding the door to Faber and Faber and admitting only the crème de crème, but mightn’t the movement rather be one of re-emphasising the public’s role in deeming classical status; of challenging our conceptions of canonicity, who may be admitted, and when; of raising publicly and critically the very question of judgement (inviting the pointed fingers); and renewing the importance of the canon, and its critique, in a time when it has stagnated, not only through the Classic losing its public popularity, but also under the purist’s gaze?


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