Tuesday, January 11, 2005

musing on the canon

I just finished reading the first of my readings for Lit and Anthro, the introductory chapter to E. Valentine Daniel and Jeffrey M. Peck's Culture/Contexture: Explorations in Anthropology and Literary Studies. I have lots to say about it, I think--it's a lot to take in at once, but so interesting--so I think I will start with a tiny, near-throwaway reference that Peck makes to the destabilization of the canon in the mid-1980s (and its potential relationship to the intersection of literature and anthropology):
With the surge of social and pollitical criticism in the eighties, the breakdown of the canon, and the exposure of white, Western, male, and heterosexist authority, English departments began to open up to "foreign" literatures and cultures (Native American, Afro-American, Latino, gay and lesbian literature) and to the different languages of popular culture (advertising, political pamphlets and speeches, newspapers and televison), accodomdating thereby a neew subfield called "cultural studies." But they all remained under the privileged eye and authority of a dominant academic English (department) culture. (Daniel and Peck, 14)

Peck's argument is a little ambiguous at this point; he points to the breakdown of the canon but then reverses himself and says that it didn't go far enough in its destabilization. Back in December, I spent a week in Sudbury, and went to the campus bookstore at Laurentian University to check out what their English department was like (which I felt could be done simply from looking at the books for the courses they are offering this term).

This was a particularly interesting exercise for me, as many of the books were ones that I studied in undergrad myself, or ones that I am teaching here at the university. So, with a tacit commonality between three of Ontario's universities, does this not point to a recanonization of some kind?

In yesterday's lecture for the class I am TAing this term, the prof discussed her inclusion of Aphra Behn's The Rover in the syllabus rather than Oroonoko, saying that to her, it seems as though Oroonoko is taught in every second English class at the university. (I should note that I am in no way complaining about this; Behn's novel is dull, dull, dull, and I don't relish the idea of having to teach it some day.) What I am suggesting here, or at least trying to suggest, is that rather than a 'breakdown' of the canon, we are simply seeing the canon mould itself to different expectations, and that "margin" areas of literature have developed a sense of 'canon' as a result. The idea of 'breaking down' the canon implies a malleability to the choices that the canon proffers, which isn't (I don't think) borne out by the reality of the situation. Rather, what we see are almost 'token' inclusions of the marginalized.

I hesitate to say that, as in saying it in this fashion implies a certain devalualing of the texts and authors that I have in mind (names like Behn, Zora Neale Hurston, Coetzee, Thomas King, and Gloria Anzaldua), and I don't intend to devalue their works--Coetzee and King in particular are favourites of mine, and all have made valuable contributions to English, as writers or scholars or both. What I am critiquing, here, is the impulse by which the canon allows so few works to integrate themselves; where one work (or one author) becomes representative of all of texts that could find themselves under the banner of that particular marginalization. For example, King sometimes seems to reside the Canadian public's literary conscious as The Only Native-Canadian Writer Ever (which is ironic, both in that he's "technically" Native-American, and that, well, he isn't).

Of course, the canon wouldn't be the canon if it wasn't what it is. If only the institutions would recognize that...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the major contributing factors to my selection of a university for undergraduate studies was that it vigorously teach the canon (albeit in different fields than yours). I think every program should have a massive mandatory canon course at the outset, or thereabouts, and then once that base is clearly establish let their courses and curriculum diverge as they like. While critics of canon might argue the premise of canon itself, in all fields, encourages standardization and hegemony within the discipline (both valid observations) it can also be said it offers a point of reference for practitioners of a given discipline and in premise asserts the notion of truth. That truths may be divined from genres and varying studies if searched for drives the very premise of academia, to theorize and know. We build canon out of abstracts and observations, be they books, treatises, formulas, models or laws, to give form to that abstract truth which comprises the premise by which the disciplines themselves conceptually exist.

Or maybe it's just an easy guideline to teach and explain things by. Lazy profs....

- R.
(P.S. - I'll try not to muse when you muse in future, promise.)