Notes on a Golden Record: Reading the Canon with Carl Sagan – Ed Simon

As of March 2012 the Voyager I space-probe was 17.9 billion km from the sun, becoming the first man-made object to leave our solar system. Attached to Voyager is a gold coated copper plate, a standard phonograph record that has encoded on it 116 various images of human culture and animal life, greetings from speakers in 55 current and ancient languages, messages from the UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim and President Jimmy Carter, and most notably twenty seven musical tracts from a variety of cultures ranging from western high classical music to Andean folk songs. The astronomer and popularizer of science Carl Sagan was largely responsible for choosing just under an hour of music that was meant to give any potential alien listeners a broad view of what it means to be human. 7.9 billion years from now our sun will supernova and encompass the Earth. Yet provided nothing has destroyed it or it hasn’t crashed into anything, Voyager will still be traveling indefinitely through the universe. That means that though every vestige of human culture on our planet will be utterly destroyed, that even our very planet will be gone, it would still theoretically be possible somewhere in the universe to listen to Glen Gould perform J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Cleaver. As such Carl Sagan has a posterity as an anthologizer of human culture that puts every editor of any Norton to shame.


I give you this parable pretty much the same way I presented it to students that I taught in an interdisciplinary humanities and first-year writing class from 2007 to 2010. In this way I hoped to introduce the concept of a canon and of a work being canonical. In readings until this point we’d discussed a variety of texts that could be called canonical, for example we’d read works by figures like Descartes, Freud, Marx, and Woolf, but we’d also engaged contemporary television shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men. Our final unit which begun with a discussion of Sagan’s gold record was geared around the duel questions of “What is a canon?” and “What criteria do people use to construct them?” As a pedagogical principle I’d engaged basic cultural studies concepts in how I taught my students to read and write. Namely that every concept, including the canon, has a history and that these texts can be understood as taking part in and under the influence of discourses related to race, class, and gender. Far from being an unchanging, platonic, perfect record of “the best that has been thought and said” a canon is thus seen as a mutable and evolving record of what particular individuals, cultures, and movements have found to be important. Like Voyager’s golden record a canon is more of a time capsule than anything else. The great educational utility of such an approach to discussing the canon is that it doesn’t eliminate the concept but it understands it as flexible and bound by culture. The canon as such is a text like any other that is to be interpreted.

One of the goals of my Voyager discussion was to emphasize that part of why canons exist is because of the finitude of human time. We have limited time, how should we spend it and how do you justify spending it that way? In thinking about the canon in this way we move beyond the elitist arguments of a Bloom – either one – or a Mortimer Adler. In thinking about Sagan’s choices the students reflect on the sort of reasoning that would go into such a decision. Sagan ultimately wanted as wide a reflection of varied cultures as was possible, so there is the presence of Indonesian gamelan music, Mexican mariachi music, and tribal chanting from New Guinea alongside the predictable choices of Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky. But one could imagine a different golden record, a different canon that is, with different cultural preoccupations. For example, Sagan could have decided a more important criterion than representativeness of human culture or perceived aesthetic value would be a record of popularity at the time of Voyager’s launch, in which case September 5th 1975 Billboard Top 100 hit Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy would last for 10 billion years instead of that other Glens version of The Well-Tempered Cleaver.

In our unit on canonicity we discussed the justifications for a variety of canons and Great Books lists, from looking at the borderline-Mosaic Western Canon of Harold Bloom to reading lists from traditionalist humanities programs at institutions like St. John’s College or the University of Chicago. Without being crudely pro- or anti-canon we were able to critique the justifications for various canons themselves and to analyze the differences between them. The unit ended with a group exercise inspired by Sagan’s example and perhaps heavily indebted to my own science fiction enthusiasms: students were presented with a fictional scenario where in the face of a rapidly approaching nuclear war they find that they have limited computer space on a digital ark to save only a few examples of human literature, film, or music. Like any real canon limited time and space presents the justification for its existence, but it is up to the students to explain the choices they made. Can one group explain why they feel future generations should have access to Reservoir Dogs but not Thriller? Why does Catcher in the Rye make the cut, but Harry Potter does not? In this way I asked students to thoughtful consider and argue why we make the aesthetic and cultural choices that we make, choices that ultimately have no absolute answer even if some arguments are better than others. I found that placing the methodology of cultural studies in the service of critiquing the canon was a way to move beyond the crude polarities of the culture wars from the ‘80s and ‘90s. It provides a way of not abolishing the idea of the canon but being savvy enough to not let the canon master you. Though we should remember that the only incontrovertible observation supplied by the example of the golden record is what Steve Martin hypothesized any potential aliens encountering Voyager might request, and that would be to “send more Chuck Berry.”

Ed Simon is the editor and founder of ‘Merica Magazine.

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