“Canon” is something we made up
Whether we’re talking Star Wars or Twilight, Star Trek or Batman, there is no real difference between“canon” and “fan fiction”.
The entire argument has already been made in the headline and subheadline. The rest of this article will simply be a footnote on this point, which I believe to be more or less irrefutable.
Given this, you should recognize that this article is basically fluff, and consider that your next six minutes or so might be better spent doing something else.
Oh? You’re on your break at work and need something to pass the time? You’re in the restroom and need something to read? Or, you’re merely finding something else to occupy the agonizing, seemingly neverending hours of a sustained lockdown while counting down the days until you finally die of boredom? — or maybe of stress, while you watch the world descend into a politically-polarized, social media-driven collective hysteria?
Well, fine then. Here are my bogus opinions on a bogus argument I’ve seen play out on internet forums over and over again, because we all have strong opinions on irrelevant nonsense. Maybe this new angle can help you avoid some stress during your perusal of internet comments sections — even if the odds of such a thing approach pretty damn close to zero, since people who peruse internet comments sections aren’t exactly looking for peace of mind.
The argument is rather simple. I’m going to take a Socratic approach, where I pose questions, and then assume what your answers will be. This may seem unfair to you. But I object to this accusation of yours, because what I’m doing is no different than what Plato did. Only, I will actually say what it is I’m doing, rather than putting words in the mouth of someone who disagrees with my ideas. This makes me a more decent person than Plato, and thus you can trust me to present a fair and down-to-earth assessment of what you think, and how you’d respond. Fair? Fair. (See how that works?)
What are the characters in a fictional universe? Where do they exist? How do they exist?
Of course you have no troubling answering these questions. The characters, settings and events in a fictional universe are imaginary. They exist in our minds. They’re created by our imagination.
Let’s discuss what it really means to relegate something to the imagination. We might consider the Nominalists (yes, we have to include some substance or the article will be boring, just go with me here). John Stuart Mill explains here who they are:
In the later middle ages there grew up… a school of metaphysicians, termed Nominalists, who, repudiating Universal Substances, held that there is nothing general except names.
Nominalism is the viewpoint that universals, and general categories, don’t really “exist”. This is opposed to philosophers like Plato. Plato was a realist, who believed that the Forms constituted a sort of “universal” category, and that things in a given category therefore possessed a sort of “essence”. In Plato’s view, things are beautiful to the extent that they approach the universal “form of beauty”. What is “good” exists not simply in the minds of men, but in objective reality itself. The names we give things, then, would not be simply arbitrary, but actually designating some general, abstract category that actually exists.
Nominalists, on the other hand, say that these general categories don’t exist. They’re just abstractions. While the Platonic realist holds that an abstraction can have some degree of reality to it, the Nominalist denies this. Basically, it’s a negative position.
I assert that people who concern themselves over issues of “canon” in a fictional universe are acting like Platonic Realists, and those who reject such concerns are acting like Nominalists. I support the Nominalist position.
This is because a fictional character — like an abstraction, a form or a general category — exists solely within the mind. Granted, he or she can exist in a lot of minds. But even unlike issues of morality or religion, there is no real controversy as to whether James Bond really exists or whether Star Wars really did happen a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We all agree that these thing don’t exist.
So, what is “canon”?
Well, obviously, you say: The stories told concerning a certain set of fictional characters and settings that are owned by the person, or people, who first made up the fictional character and setting.
But many of the people who made up these characters and settings are long dead. One could even say that most iconic cultural masterpieces on our society were made by people who are now dead or not involved with their production in an endless barrage of sequels and remakes. There’s been far more Star Trek made after Gene Roddenberry died than when he was alive.
Well, sure, you would naturally say. But Rick Berman and Majel Barrett and Michael Okuda and all these other people managed the franchise over the decades after Gene’s death. And they brought in new people and those people became just as important to the canon.
But isn’t this a Ship of Theseus in that example?
Of course, you would reply that you do know of the Ship of Theseus, and that it is a thought experiment about a ship whose boards and parts rotted over the years and had to be replaced, until after a time the entire ship had been replaced in this fashion and none of the original parts remain. (You can thank me for giving you so much credit.)
So we are likening the ownership over a given “canon” to the Ship of Theseus. But wouldn’t this mean that, at best, one can gain ownership of a canon by inheritance? That it can be passed down? How far shall we take this notion?
What if there’s a completely new set of people making new content under the same brand name? What if none of the original people are involved with the show anymore? And what of George Lucas selling Star Wars to Disney? Someone who created something can sell the rights to make “canon”?
Enough. Listen. This is all made up. The only hard realities we can identify in all of this are money, and intellectual property. The extent to which any of this is real is only the extent to which someone’s ownership of something is backed up by law. That means a lot in material terms. But that doesn’t mean a damn thing in artistic terms.
And if we’re going to say that it does, all we’ll be doing is allowing market forces to determine what we’re allowed to imagine.
Stop thinking like such a Platonic Realist, and come over to the Nominalist camp. Someone reboots a beloved franchise and makes new content under the same brand, and it’s absolute garbage? Fine. It’s not real, it didn’t “really happen”, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the creative vision of the people who originally made it. Whether a firm worth billions of dollars acquired the rights to reproduce certain characters or imagery from another firm worth billions really should have no bearing on whether that reproduction is taken seriously.
Put another way — no, you don’t have to accept that Star Trek: Picard is “canon”, or that The Rise of Skywalker is “canon”, or whatever else.
But wait, you say. We have a term for this. It’s called “headcanon”.
No. No, no, no, no, no. You’re still being a shameless Platonic Realist, still trying to draw a division between different ways we perceive the characters and stories that exist nowhere else other than in our imagination. The division between “canon” and “fan fiction” isn’t real. Therefore, anyone who spends any amount of time arguing as to what is canon or isn’t, or telling people they have to accept something as canon because some studio owns a bit of intellectual property, or shitting on people who like something that doesn’t fit in with your viewpoint of a given fictional property — is a damn pitiful rube. (I’m obviously exempt from this principle because of my own self-awareness of it, or something).
The concept of “canon” is as made up as the fictional universes we apply it to, for just the reason that it is an attempt at creating general category among things that aren’t real. That means that if you’re both a Nominalist in regard to fictional franchises, and a philosophical Nominalist, the idea of “canon” is like, doubly untrue, dude. Not a good look, bro.
That’s it. That’s all the distraction I can currently muster. You’ll have to scroll over to something else now.
But maybe you’ll now look at the creative and intellectual productions of our culture as something we all share. The art of our cultures exists in all of us, and cannot be “owned” by some company. It is yours. It’s all yours — to do with as you please, in your own mental kingdom.