This is not a pipe: on the treachery of canon by amonitrate
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Author's Notes:
a response to an interesting and heated discussion on lj about canon.

A famous painting by the surrealist Rene Magritte consists of an image of a pipe above a sentance that declares Ceçi n'est pas une pipe, or "This is not a pipe."

Simple, but powerful. This one image calls into question so many of the assumptions that make up our everyday lives. Assumptions about language, meaning, objecthood, and the nature of art itself. After all, as the statement says, a painting of a pipe is not the same thing as the object we call "pipe."

The more I think about it, the more the concept of canon reminds me of this painting. As [info]turned_earth said somewhere recently in reference to a dispute about canon events, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." To that I would add, "except when it's not."

The painting in question is titled The Treachery Of Images (La trahison des images). I can't think of a more apt word for my experience of attempting to put a frame around canon. Treachery.

Canon is treacherous territory.

To the naive (um, that would be me, as of a couple days ago) canon is solid, knowable, with firm boundaries. After all, the source is concrete - the "text" doesn't change. Right? 

[info]janedavitt writes in an essay that "[c]anon is about as solid as a quagmire. 'What we see...'. We see and we hear when we watch a show. Technically we all see/hear the same thing but does it mean we all see/hear it the same way? Of course not. ... canon is affected the moment we start to discuss it - and it's almost impossible to discuss it objectively."

Which, of course, I found out in discussions with [info]pat_t and others. Canon is a slippery thing. It may be a pipe to one person, but to another it's an image of a pipe. Who's right?

"Canon is the one thing that no one argues is not canon." [info]tanacawyr muses. She goes on to clarify, "[i]f you have to argue about whether it's canon or not, it's not canon."

Okay. But what is canon? Wikipedia says "[i]n the context of fiction, the canon of a fictional universe comprises those novels, stories, films, etc. that are considered to be genuine (or "official"), and those events, characters, settings, etc. that are considered to have inarguable existence within the fictional universe." Inarguable. But where is that line, between what is inarguable, and what is... arguable? The difficult answer seems to be that the line is in different places for different people.

To complicate matters, there are potentially as many "canons" as there are fans. As [info]go_back_chief notes, "[w]e’ve also got to keep in mind that none of us reads a fictive story, or watches it on TV or the movies, with a completely open mind. We can’t, our established values and previous knowledge of both real life and literature, art, movies, TV etc, is going to affect the way we read the story –one way or the other."

One of the conflicts that came up in the recent discussion of Methos and Alexa was over the understanding of "love at first sight." Debating whether Methos fell "head over heels" in love with Alexa in Timeless led to the realization that a given fan's opinion on this possibility often depended on whether they allowed for the existence of "love at first sight" in the first place. And in this discussion, it became clear that some believed that the notion that Methos fell for Alexa this way was canon, while others saw it as one among many possible interpretations. By tanacawyr's definition, this very discussion would prove that the "type" (for lack of a better word) of Methos' love for Alexa is not canon, but open to the fan's interpretation.

I find this definition to be problematic, if taken too literally. After all, just about any piece of the text can be argued, if one feels so inclined. If taken to its logical extreme it annihilates canon altogether. Which, as Wikipedia suggests, may not be a bad thing. In the entry on canon, Wikipedia notes that  "[t]here is no unanimous opinion on whether having a definitive canon in a fictional setting is useful, desirable or even possible. Canonicity of fiction is a distinctly modern idea, since earlier ages, before the current ideas of intellectual property came about, did not distinguish between 'official' and 'unofficial' sources of stories."

So why bother with canon at all?