Canon Is An Abyss

On January 4th, 2019 the @Pottermore account, representing the “digital heart of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World” tweeted the following:

Hogwarts didn’t always have bathrooms. Before adopting Muggle plumbing methods in the eighteenth century, witches and wizards simply relieved themselves wherever they stood, and vanished the evidence. #NationalTriviaDay

This pronouncement raises more questions than it answers. Wherever they stood? Did they remove their clothes or just soil themselves? Either way is hardly more convenient, mechanically or socially, than finding some private location to do one’s excretory business. And vanished to where? I hope not simply made invisible; this creates a cadre of even more nonplussing problems. Is it possible there exists some distant nether realm filled to the brim with Wizard Dookie as the basements of Victorian houses once were (those with the muggle variety, of course; but wait, is conjurer poo itself magical)? 

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows it is explained that when material is “vanished” it goes “into non-being, which is to say, everything.” Is everything, quite literally, shit? [1] 

Was said ejecta vanished in process, or upon full completion; did wizards have varying preferences about which waste removal spells were ideal or proper; how tumultuous was the transition from enchanted removal to mundane plumbing; were there faeces vanishing holdouts; are there wizards who still prefer the old ways to this muggle nonsense; these questions, and more, were raised in response to the Pottermore tweet:

The impulse to wonder these things, especially given the subject matter, is perhaps difficult to understand for the more modest fiction-consuming public. Who cares? It’s a weird twitter joke. It is an impulse that’s difficult to explain, true. But we’ll give it a go nonetheless, starting with Pottermore’s poo minutiae and moving eventually to a more broad set of questions about fictional universes, and the author’s occasionally meddlesome relationship to them. But first: canon.

CANON VS NON

Poogate’s Deep Throat is the Pottermore twitter account. Like the Nixon informant the account is a messenger merely announcing untoward deeds, not those deed’s *ahem* perpetrator. Pottermore.com hosts a number of short pieces written by J.K. Rowling. In an entry published October 25, 2012 and titled “Chamber of Secrets” she writes (emphasis mine):

There is clear evidence that the Chamber was opened more than once between the death of Slytherin and the entrance of Tom Riddle in the twentieth century. When first created, the Chamber was accessed through a concealed trapdoor and a series of magical tunnels. However, when Hogwarts’ plumbing became more elaborate in the eighteenth century (this was a rare instance of wizards copying Muggles, because hitherto they simply relieved themselves wherever they stood, and vanished the evidence), the entrance to the Chamber was threatened, being located on the site of a proposed bathroom. The presence in school at the time of a student called Corvinus Gaunt – direct descendant of Slytherin, and antecedent of Tom Riddle – explains how the simple trapdoor was secretly protected, so that those who knew how could still access the entrance to the Chamber even after newfangled plumbing had been placed on top of it.

Because said stool tidbit was evacuated by an authorial aggregate of the Potter Media Industrial Complex (many of these Pottermore shorts are also collected in Rowling’s book Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable History) it is solidly canonical. “Canon” is – reductively – the set of facts which comprise what is officially the case in any given fiction. It is canon that Batman’s parents are dead. It is canon that Princess Leia marries Han Solo and becomes General Organa. Likewise, the following are as “true” as any other “fact” of fiction: Harry is a wizard, Snape kills Dumbledore, and, apparently, these dips would soil themselves in the Great Hall then magically disappear the mess. 

Canon stands in opposition to non-canon – things which are simply not true in fiction (either because they are directly refuted or never addressed) – as well as “fanon” and “head canon”, flavors of canon one is likely to encounter around fan fiction, a pursuit where fan-authors often challenge or extend pre-existing works via their own creations.

Crucially, official canon is largely built through the release of landmark works which set the basis for a story: books, movies, tv episodes, and so on. After these releases are consumed and digested by fans, those fans may respond with their own, sometimes surprising, output (“the Babadook is gay“). Creators are welcome to acknowledge these additions, or not. And this is one beautiful aspect of fanon and headcanon: anyone is free to accept either, both or neither as augmentation to their reading of a favorite fictional work. One is not required to adopt another fan’s take and may even be vehemently opposed to certain fan- or head-canons (such disagreements are the source of perennial ~drama~ in various fandoms). 

Complications arise, however, when authors write what amounts to fan fiction about their own works: aftermarket pieces which extend or challenge their previous output and what was assumed, perhaps incorrectly, to be the foundation they set. For better and worse a premium is placed upon authorial intent, and a creator issuing aftermarket canon is not unlike a contractor arriving at your house with a single brick and a mandate from the city, explaining “You don’t necessarily need this, but we think the place would be better if we added it.” In the same way you must now find a place for this new brick – this additional structural element – one must find a place for an author’s canonical augmentations. More often than not, this means some amount of rearranging. 

THE ABYSS OF CANON

The above questions about wizard waste are the result of needing to accommodate a new shit brick, as it were. In the process of making room, things are shuffled about and we end up asking: how does it all fit back together? We uncover, in the process of accommodation, things we forgot about. We see familiarities anew, and in relation to the novel addition. Things get pushed around, adjusted and rotated so a new indulgence can be welcomed. Like a museum adding to its collection, each new piece changes how we view the whole, and opens up a perspective on the previously commonplace that may cause unease.

Put another way: aftermarket authorial augmentations to canon are a trail of breadcrumbs that lead to an inkblack forest of the [canonically] unknowable. Following infernal knowledge doled out by the author (“wizards once defiled their own vestments”) further truths are suggested but never confirmed (perhaps muggle hating, pure blooded wizards would defecate on the floor of Hogwarts and leave it unvanished in protest against the adoption of muggle technology?). The audience ravenously consumes the breadcrumb trail, as it represents further knowledge of some beloved fiction, but then it ends. Suddenly unmoored from the relative clarity of authorial guidance, engaged fans must feel their way through the gloom with not much besides momentum, and instinct, as guidance. 

Could a wizard vanish excreta directly from their innards? 

This is how Canon becomes an Abyss: an endless, depthless void. This is how a simple fact about plumbing can lead to a plumbless trench of mystery. 

In the Christian Bible, the Abyss is often a sunken and remote place of exile and punishment, found deep beneath the earth’s surface [2] (“abyssus” in Latin, literally: “bottomless gulf”). Dante Alighieri, in the Divine Comedy, fashions this image into the abyss of hell through which Virgil travels. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, “Abyss” names the swirling waters of creation before Genesis (“άβυσσος” or “ávyssos”, literally “deep place”). The abyss, like canon, is the petrifying, and dizzying realm of possibility that underlies everything, and which is molded by the remarkable powers of the Creator.

Occultist, magician and writer Aleister Crowley described the Abyss of his Thelemic spiritual philosophy as akin “more or less to the gap in thought between the Real, which is ideal, and the Unreal, which is actual. In the Abyss,” he writes, “all things exist, indeed, at least in posse, but are without any possible meaning; for they lack the substratum of spiritual Reality.” All contents of the Abyss are “Insane Delusions.” (Little Essays Toward Truth, 13)

For Crowley, the magician’s ultimate task is to kill off the ego and ascended to a holistic spiritual perspective. To do this the magician must cross the Abyss, wherein sense disintegrates. All signs mean their opposite and all entities represent their negation. It is everything the magician can do to retain coherence while sacrificing their sense of the possible and their self. Hermetic magician Benjamin Rowe describes Crowley’s Abyss as “a region of nullity and terror, in which anything that enters is torn asunder.”

In Beyond Good and Evil, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warns of fighting monsters and in the process becoming one; of looking into the abyss only to find the very same looking back into you (Aphorism 146). There’s an interpretation of this passage for each edgy redditor who’s crossed it but if you’ll indulge my own: Nietzsche was a staunch opponent of Christian moralism based in good versus evil. Instead of (or in addition to) arguing against it, he sought to move beyond it to ideas concerning power. This ideally assures he doesn’t recreate the monstrosity he challenges, that he doesn’t become a similar, if counterposed, dogmatic moral authority. [3]

Looking “long into the Abyss” is to succumb to the the depths of the things you wish to navigate beyond. It is the bottomless pit of failing to move past, in which one might search fruitlessly for answers neither provided nor possible. In so doing, one gives something of the self to the abyss. Or perhaps the abyss simply takes it. We may argue, of course, that this exact sacrifice is the very responsibility of the thinker and philosopher.

We can assemble these perspectives into a kind of cubist portrait of the Abyss of Canon: an endless swirling void of all – even mutually exclusive – possibility; a gap between what is Real and what is Actual presided over by a Creator; a depth of creation and contradiction in which we may search for unknowable answers and lose something of ourselves in the process… or perhaps willingly give it away.

All fictional canon is abyssal. The difference between canons is how deep we are encouraged to look, and by what method that encouragement is delivered. Pottermore tweets are one kind of encouragement to stare into the abyss of Harry Potter; but some works are designed as deeply abyssal. Doctor Who, soap operas, Star Wars, many long running comic series and the Dark Souls games allow their audience to become like Crowley’s magician: to sacrifice themselves to the depths of canon, become lost in the infinite void of often paradoxical possibility. These works do not unknowingly or only occasionally beckon their audience into the abyss of canon but take it as their ongoing structural mandate. 

Works like This is Us, many romance novels, Robocop and the Tomb Raider games ask or expect their audience to look glancingly, if at all, into the abyss (though one may stare deep if they so choose). These works may exist in some version of “our” universe and so are able to leave detailed exposition unapproached. They may simply be unconcerned with what is not directly depicted in the course of the work.

The factor which accounts for the relative difference between works which invite endless trawling of their depths and works which do not may be their presence, or not, within a self styled “universe”. Neither Marvel nor Dune, for example, are simply fictional. They are fictional universes, suggesting coherence, continuity (however fluid) and a set of laws adhered to across all works which bear the same Brand™. This is an ever more present hallmark of modern, mass market, fiction: not simply a set of stories, but an infinitely franchisable set of perspectives within a package that is given narrative and commercial weight when labeled a “universe”.

Another potential difference between work more and less inviting to the abyss of canon is their relationship to their creator.

THE UNDEAD AUTHOR 

Toad’s head is a head, and not a hat. Also Toads are genderless. Nintendo has “confirmed” both of these items in various supplementary materials and press events (and also that goombas – despite being named after chestnuts in Japanese – are mushrooms). George Lucas and Disney are notorious for their abyssal treatment of canon, dis- and en-franchising various Star Wars story arcs to suit ongoing projects, and Lucas once even settling a minor question of canon on Conan O’Brien. Blizzard continually explores, reveals, and clarifies character details both previously hinted at and invented whole cloth in their Overwatch universe, mostly through comics or animated shorts, not the game itself, which lacks a story mode. And then, of course, there is the internet, and social media.

Screenwriter and producer J. Michael Straczynski jokes about and expands (??) upon Babylon 5 lore and background. Lead Dungeons and Dragons rules mage Jeremy Crawford recently revealed the canonical scent of Gnome Butts. Stephen Universe supervising director and storyboard artist Joe Johnston comments on much of the shows canon in direct response to fan questions via his tumblr’s Ask feature. 

In 2000, Gargoyle’s creator Greg Weisman began sharing his “quote-unquote Master Plan”, the progression of stories and story ideas which went unmade due to the show’s cancellation. He would eventually refer to this non-canon-canon as “Canon-in-training”. In early 2018, director James Gunn used twitter to clarify his intentions regarding the death of Groot. And the list of authors implicated in abyssalizing their own work – having allegedly contributed (perhaps trifling) insight to their creations (or argued against others contributions) after-the-fact – is not short. [4] Rowling is arguably the most notable and heavy handed. So much so, classics professor Caroline Bishop describes her as an Undead Author.

The Death of the Author is an oft misunderstood literary theory from French theorist Roland Barthes. He felt the literary criticism of his time – focused upon a reading of works which took into account the author’s milieu and intent – was misguided. Barthes describes writers as “scriptors” not “authors”-and-therefore-authorities. They are channels through which various influences and ideas flow and are synthesized into a finished piece, he thought. The author themselves cannot know the totality of influences which bear upon their output, so the “true“ meaning of the work – it follows – can’t rely on intent, only on interpretation.

The Death of the Author has, since, become shorthand for dismissing the canonicity of an author’s clarifications regarding their own work. Once the work is in the world, its author dies. They become yet another reader and retain no author-ity. Except, with social media, it can be difficult remember this. I mean – here is some version of them ambling about, insisting Dumbledore is gay. Social media (and its cohort) helps bring the dead author back to life. Far from a Lazarian resurrection, though, this is much more Romero than King James. The Undead author is a zombie-form, not a true second coming: risen from the grave with the assistance of social media but reanimated ultimately – their living flesh turned to dead labor, as Mark Fischer may say – by Capital.

In her piece Harry Potter and the Undead Author, Bishop surveys self interpretation’s long history, and discourages bemoaning Rowling’s siren-like Wizarding World Abyss as some newfangled bother. Cicero, another Undead Author example she cites, engaged in rampant self-clarification and reinterpretation. He sought a level of notoriety and a particular understanding of his work and attained both by telling his audience how to give it to him. He did this in newer works which commented upon the old, gesturing deep into an Abyss of his own political thought and accomplishment.

Bishop likens Rowling’s tweets, interviews, and spin-off works to Cicero’s autocommentary, and explains that though such an approach had (and has) its detractors, it is demonstrably effective. And is furthermore, perhaps, simply the sign of compelling work: “If we like a piece of art well enough to return to it over and over again,” she concludes, “as has been the case with Roman literature — and up till now, at least, has also been the case with the Harry Potter books — in the long run we may come to sympathize with an author who finds herself compelled to do the same thing.”

I concede that Cicero’s On His Consulship may function like Rowling’s The Cursed Child, or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – each gives an audience further grist for the canon-mill. Each encourages the abyssalization of some built world. They are not, I might argue, works by an Undead Author. They are simply authored, and the result of an on-going career. We do not consider Wittgenstein, for instance, who recanted much of his earlier thought in his late work, as violating some Dead Author Principle. We rather consider him to have continued working. We do not consider the constant rewriting of Superhero Canon in comics and movies to be clarification or commentary, just continuance. And similarly, my suggestion of Blizzard’s authorial demise may have been greatly exaggerated. They are perhaps not undead in their ongoing exploration of the Overwatch Universe, but have rather designed a story which is always already ongoing. As author, Blizzard(‘s employees) lives and so cannot be reanimated. Similarly, Rowling – through landmark canon works – retains some vitality.

Canonical additions via social media, press junkets or tv interviews are a distinct, however. They are, as Lindsay Ellis describes, “paratext”: not canon text, but text which sits alongside it. Not landmarks, but roadside novelties. Ellis argues that paratext, in the case of Rowling specifically, can act as a hasty fix: a method for unproblematizing a text where the author lacked the bravery, wherewithal or creativity to address certain shortcomings pre-publish. This is the zombification of the author; this is when, and where, and how the dead author comes back to life. A desiccated, bluegrey fist bursts through the soil before a tombstone, gripping an iPhone, twitter open. It thumbs a message. “The Naga are snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology, hence the name ‘Nagini.’ They are sometimes depicted as winged, sometimes as half-human, half-snake. Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including Javanese, Chinese and Betawi. Have a lovely day 🐍”

This readjustment encourages fans to stare deeply into the Abyss of Canon, a process whereby the relevance of the work is reconsidered, and which produces continued engagement and so: Capital. Of course landmark works are likewise entangled in Capital, but we understand those works are something different, as works of art and cultural import. Undead Author paratexts which encourage inspection of the Abyss function more like advertisements: they colonize mental bandwidth and reframe our relationship to “reality” by insisting we make room for something new. 

Like a zombie, The Undead Author is likely unaware of (or unconcerned with) their actions. They come-to with an insatiable hunger for engagement, continued relevance, social and economic capital. The Undead Author hungers for the brains of their audience, and their quarry is likewise turned undead. Audiences seemingly hunger ravenously for a thing they cannot describe or anticipate. When shown what was missing all along – when appraised of These Bricks, when gestured at and into the Abyss of Canon – a sense of need spikes. Wizard feces is the brain-chum, and we are the zombie-sharks. Audiences churn the depthless waters of creation in a shitty, social media feeding frenzy. 

This is the labor performed for an Undead Author and their media-complex: flailing wildly, and catching bystanders in the spray, demonstrating the diabolic merriment [5] of The Abyss of Canon. To say those who engage in this paroxysm don’t truly enjoy what inspires it would be a difficult claim. As Fisher points out, we are inserted “at the level of desire” to the “remorseless meat-grinder of Capitalism.” (Capitalist Realism, 15) 

What we want, and what is wanted from us are unrecognizably fused into a horrible, social-emotional-economic cryptid. Though some may bemoan the abyss of canon in sundry tweets, and think piece dourly upon it, others (and often the very same) nonetheless celebrate, cherish and yearn for it. 

The Abyss gives us something to look into, and if we are lucky, perhaps it will look back.

— THX —

Thank you and <3 infinitely to my drip subscribers without whom this work would not have possible! Special shoutouts to Jim, Asta, Jakob, Joel and Toby for their notes on the Work In Progress draft of this piece.

Thanks to Dan, Joshua, Mech Bidness 2019, and Alessandro for help with the paragraph concerning the bible, and Matt, Justus, What duck?, Bell, and Dan [another one] for help on the section about authors who comment on their work via “paratext”. 

Thanks also generally to Lindsay Ellis, Dan Olson and Olly Thorn whose work has inspired this in various, perhaps difficult to state ways. It is highly likely, if you are here, you are familiar with what they do – if not, please do go familiarize yourself. 

— FOOTNOTES — 

1. Chapter 30, The Sacking of Severus Snape. Page 476. S/O Jim Fishwick and PK_PDX.

2. “A Survey of the Abyss in the Old and New Testaments”, http://paradoxbrown.com/abyss-old-and-new-testaments.htm/

3. I make no claims regarding his success in this matter.

4. For lack of time and resources to comb through the social media profiles of professional writers, I will leave the list of uncorroborated finger-points unprinted.

5. S/O, Tim Mucci