Canonicity and Memory

Drew Newman

SUNY at Stony Brook

I started my lecture on Humanity in Algiers by talking about Steven Spielberg’s film “Jaws.” 

My purpose was to introduce JTO by thinking about why some cultural artifacts become canonical while others, as is written on the JTO page, become “neglected and forgotten.” Of course, the students in my large American Literature I lecture survey knew “Jaws,” as they demonstrated by humming the theme song. But when we looked up 1975 in IMDb, which lists the films from that (apparently quite kinky) year in order of popularity, we quickly found ourselves in unfamiliar territory. This brief exploration illustrated a concept articulated by Aleida Assman, who makes a distinction between the “Canon” and “Archive” in cultural memory:

 Cultural memory, then, is based on two separate functions: the presentation of a narrow selection of sacred texts, artistic masterpieces, or historic key events in a timeless framework; and the storing of documents and artifacts of the past that do not meet all these standards but are nevertheless deemed interesting or important enough to not let them vanish on the highway to total oblivion (“Canon and Archive,” A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies 101).

This selection process is not entirely predictable, but in retrospect we can see that “Jaws,” as a breakthrough work by a famous artist, one that was popular and acclaimed in its moment of production and influential thereafter, satisfies certain criteria for canonicity that the anonymous, obscure, and artistically impoverished Humanity in Algiers utterly does not. So what can we learn by studying a work like Humanity in Algiers?

In their reading journals, most of the students remarked on the story’s implausibility. Some accepted at face value the conceit that it’s a factual narrative written by an American who had been a slave in Algiers, and remarked that it was “difficult not to question” its authenticity. Daniel pointed out that it was unbelievable not only that a “disembodied voice” urged Azem to return to his master, but also that Testador would receive Azem, after his attempted escape, with “open arms.” Brian suggested that the author’s anonymity further undermined the text’s credibility, while Annalisa pointed out that the voice of divine intervention was intended to supply a authority that the voice of the author lacked. Here the charge of implausibility shifts from the supposed facts of the narrative to its underlying principles. As Rory wrote, the story was not quite proposing the abolition of slavery in America, but rather an “alternative”: “indentured servitude.”

If Humanity in Algiers were an original, aesthetically pleasing work by a famous author, its espousal of gradualism might still mitigate against its continued inclusion on American literature syllabi. Despite the role reversal in having the American narrator subjected to slavery, and the critique of American slavery posed by the unfavorable comparison to the Algerian system, the politics of the story are dissatisfying. Its recipe for satisfied masters and happy, devoted slaves makes it both interesting and difficult to relate to. “I really like the idea of the Just Teach One initiative,” wrote Megan Hartman, a participant in Stony Brook’s Master of Arts of Teaching program who took my course for graduate credit, “but I’m not sure I would ever teach Humanity in Algiers in my classroom.” The story’s “confusing quality,” she added,  “keeps Humanity in Algiers out of my canon.”

 When I teach Humanity in Algiers again, I’ll relate it to a different film, 2013’s best candidate for the canon, “12 Years a Slave.” I think students would find it easy to place Steve McQueen’s film in dialog with Humanities in Algiers. Moreover, with its basis in the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northrup, it illustrates the potential of a text to emerge from the archive and speak meaningfully to later generations.


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