Challenging the Canon

Read the following article and 1o statements you like why?

Challenging the Canon

TH E T E R M ‘ C A N O N ‘ refers to a traditional core of literature, made up of works deemed ‘great’, ‘valuable’, ‘universal’ and ‘timeless’, and therefore worthy of continued academic study. The canon has never been completely formalised, with particular writers being always either in or out (probably Shakespeare would be the only writer who was always ‘in’ on English Literature courses). Fashions do change, but the range of what is counted as great remains restricted, and reliably reproduced, if only because teachers tend to teach what they are familiar with and publishers tend to publish what they know will sell. However, this simplistic answer skirts the issue of judgement, of how a text might qualify for greatness, universality and value.T.S. Eliot, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, posits his thesis for how traditions should be perpetuated by individual poets:
“The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does
not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations.
He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves,
but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware
that the mind of Europe – the mind of his own country – a mind
which he learns in time to be much more important than his own
private mind – is a mind which changes.”(Eliot 1975: 39)

Eliot makes both explicit and implicit points here. Explicitly, and perhaps these days uncontroversially, he suggests that the ‘main current’ of tradition is beyond the control of the individual, but it nevertheless influences what kind of art is produced. The less explicit points that can be gleaned from this small extract, though, are that poetry is what is important to artistic traditions, that poets are male, and most significant of all, poets are European. Such a position has not gone unchallenged, and some of this challenge has come from a liberalisation of the canon, an attempt to get a wider range of texts included on core literature courses, as well as the teaching of representative literatures, such as courses on women’s writing, African- American writing and so on.
The inclusion of a wider range of texts to study is one response to the problem of an exclusive canon. But another question emerges from this debate: what is the effect of continuing to produce ‘representative’ canons that include the odd black writer or two, on the grounds that they are ‘as good as’ any of the white writers on the list? If one argues that one text is ‘as good as’ another, there must be a shared set of criteria on which that
judgement is made. In other words, this makes alternative literatures conform
to the same standards of a tradition that has excluded them.
Instead of simply saying that black writers should be included in the mainstream of literary study, it is perhaps more useful to consider what a literary canon which ratifies some works and not others does to our critical practice. What is the effect on critics’ capacity to do their work, if they are used to reading only limited kinds of literature? Paul Lauter asks: ‘How is
canon, – that is, selection – related to, indeed a function of critical technique?’ (1991: 228) He continues to question the ways in which the selective procedures govern the way in which we read and criticise. Try to answer Lauter’s questions for yourself:
“o can the canon significantly change if we retain essentially the same critical techniques and priorities?
o where do the techniques of criticism come from? Do they fall from the sky? Or do they arise out of social practice? And if the latter, from which social practice?
o out of what social practice, from what values, does the close analysis (disregarding other contextual factors) of complex texts (i.e. those deemed complex and valuable by the sustainers of the canon) arise?
o do we perpetuate those values in pursuing the critical practice derived from them?
o does such critical practice effectively screen from our appreciation, even our scrutiny, other worlds of creativity, of art?
o are there other worlds of art out there whose nature, dynamics, values we fail to appreciate because we ask the wrong questions, or don’t know what questions to ask? Or maybe we shouldn’t simply be asking questions.
[In other words] . . . the literary canon as we have known it is a product in significant measure of our training in male, white, bourgeois cultural tradition, including in particular the formal
techniques of literary analysis. Other cultural traditions provide alternate views about the nature and function of art, and approaches to it. (Lauter 1991: 228)”

Lauter here is questioning the training and experience of literary critics and scholars, and suggests that the continual inscription of some texts as suitable for formal study and analysis, the continual delineation of others as unacceptable, is a self-perpetuating process. His questions ask critics to examine themselves and the answers suggest that who you are not only
affects what you say, but it also affects who hears you and how they understand your work.
There is an undeniable Eurocentricism on English Literature core courses, certainly at degree level. It is not just that the ‘essential’ texts that students read year after year are predominantly by white writers, but also that the kind of issues that students are encouraged to examine do not engage with questions of cultural identity, racism, colonialism and marginalisation, of issues of home and abroad, and how the metropolitan ‘home’ is often constructed on the back of the colonised ‘abroad’. To explain more fully what we mean, let us look at Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) as it has been read by Edward Said. Said argues that the position of Sir
Thomas Bertram at home cannot be understood without reference to his position as an absentee plantation owner on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Said quotes this scene from Jane Austen which establishes Sir Thomas’s role as lord of Mansfield Park, and follows it  with a commentary that puts the small local scene into a world perspective. First, read the extract from Jane
“It was a busy morning with him. Conversation with any of them
occupied but a small part of it. He had to reinstate himself in all the
wonted concerns of his Mansfield life, to see his steward and his
bailiff – to examine and compute – and, in the intervals of business,
to walk into his stables and nearest plantations; but active and
methodical, he had not only done all this before he resumed his seat
as master of the house at dinner, he had also set the carpenter to
work in pulling down what had been so lately put up in the billiard
room, and given the scene painter his dismissal, long enough to
justify the pleasing belief of his being then at least as far off as
Northampton. The scene painter was gone, having spoilt only the
floor of one room, ruined all the coachman’s sponges, and made five
of the under-servants idle and dissatisfied . . .”(Austen [1814] 1966: 42)

Comment on what you understand to be the significance of this short extract.

ii) Now read the commentary on this same quotation by Said.
Are there any similarities between his reading of the text and
your own?

The force of this paragraph is unmistakable. Not only is this a Crusoe
setting things in order: it is also an early Protestant eliminating all
traces of frivolous behaviour. There is nothing in Mansfield Park that
would contradict us, however, were we to assume that Sir Thomas
does exactly the same things – on a larger scale – in his Antigua
‘plantations’. Whatever was wrong there . . . Sir Thomas was able to
fix, thereby maintaining his control over his colonial domain. More
clearly here than anywhere else in her fiction, Austen here synchronizes
domestic with international authority, making it plain that the values
associated with such higher things as ordination, law, and property
must be grounded firmly in actual rule over and possession of territory
(Said 1994: 103-4)
Said is careful to explain that the mentions of Antigua in Austen’s novel are few and far between, and that Sir Thomas Bertram is not seen at work on his Caribbean plantations in the course of the narrative, and so it is easy to complain that he (Said) is wilfully misreading the novel. In his own defence, he argues:
“I think of [my] reading as completing or complementing others, not
discounting or displacing them. And it bears stressing that because
Mansfield Park connects to the actualities of British power overseas to
the domestic imbroglio within the Bertram estate, there is no way of
doing such readings as mine, no way of understanding the ‘structure
of attitude and reference’ except by working through the novel . . .
But in reading it carefully, we can sense how ideas about dependent
races and territories were held both by foreign-office executives,
colonial bureaucrats, and military strategists and by intelligent novelreaders
educating themselves in the fine points of moral evaluation,
literary balance, and stylistic finish
.”(Said 1994: 114)
Said here implicates the novel-reading process in other discourses of power that support and perpetuate imperialism. His emphasis on the significance of the novel-reading process in this respect is important to remember.

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