What do I have to do?
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On your own copy, work through all of the attached readings. Use the comment feature to annotate the reading to demonstrate that you are engaging actively with the texts. Then, in 250 to 400 words, please respond to one of the following prompts.
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- Sanders (2012) points to a significant challenge with canonical standards: they “favor the powerful and … marginalize the powerless, regardless of the merits of their work”. Are there any creators whose work is undervalued (or dismissed) because of any number of factors, including but not limited to age, belief system, body, (dis)ability, gender identity, genre, industry/interests, race, or social class? What are we missing out on?
- Kellman (1997) presents three sides to the controversy about the canon: canons exclude a multitude of voices and only really centre the voices of “dead white [able-bodied, straight, upper-class] European males”; canons are “undemocratic” and create artificial hierarchies of texts; regardless of who wrote what, texts that have “esthetic and moral value” must be read to avoid “cultural illiteracy”. Where do you find yourself in regards to these three schools of thought?
- Morris (2018) states “canon-making is a fairly human impulse: I love this. Everyone else should, too!. Over time a single book becomes a library; the library becomes a school of thought; the school of thought becomes a prism through which the world is supposed to see itself.” How does this logic perpetuate a limited view of the world?
The “Canon” of English Literature
By Arnie Sanders (2012)
Canon: n., from the Latin canon or “rule.” Originally, an ecclesiastical code of law or standard of judgment, later any standard of judgment, usually based upon determinate set of authorized texts, like the canonical books of the Bible, Torah, Qu’ran, or Sutras. In modern literature study, the “best” or “most important” or “most representative” works of secular literature which anchor the study of English and American literature.
Until literature has a “canon,” it has been argued, it has not risen to the level of sophistication at which it can be studied seriously by scholars. I would argue that the reverse is true: scholarly study creates canons by making accurate texts available and by defining the terms by which they are studied. Folk literatures, for instance, tend not to have canons until scholars have gotten into the act, collecting and correlating and analyzing the wild oral transmission of the folk tale or song. People might argue whether “Tune X” is “really a blues song rather than rock and roll or rhythm and blues,” but until a canon of “blues” exists, people will tend to disagree rather hopelessly about the facts. When asked whether “Tune X” is “a great blues song,” their opinions will be even more divided by appeals to unstable definitions until people have taken the time to make serious, systematic studies of the how the art is created.
Canonization also distorts literature and introduces predictable biases in interpretation. Canons of literature may fossilize their subject and reduce its study to dry memorization for its own sake. The rules by which the canonical texts are selected tend to favor the powerful and to exclude or marginalize the powerless, regardless of the merits of their work. Or, rather, “merit” will become unconsciously identified as a property “naturally” belonging to the powerful, and “naturally” unavailable to the powerless. The values and tastes of the powerful will turn the process of canon formation and its product into a cultural prison. But does this mean we cannot have informed discussion of canons without allowing them to imprison our values and tastes? Think about what rejecting any serious study of tastes and values will do to our understanding of literature.
Studying how literature is created and testing claims for its place in the canon makes us better readers, more aware of [authors’] choices and the strategies guiding them. Instead of stopping at “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” readers will be able to talk about what “it” is, how it works, and what kinds of beautiful or ugly effects it produces in all of its elements over time as it unfolds. This process aids canon formation, it is true, but without it, we cannot communicate or fully understand what we like about literature, and it acts upon us in ways we cannot fully understand, a dangerous cultural situation which caused Plato to argue that we ought to ban poets from the ideal city. Let us welcome the poets to our city, but let us understand how their art works…
Source Citation: Sanders, Arnie. “The ‘Canon’ of English Literature.” ENGLISH 211: English Literature Beowulf to Dryden, Goucher College, Fall 2012, http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng211/canon_of_english_literature.htm.
Of making books, declares Ecclesiastes, there is no end. But, in a finite life, which books should one read? With almost 50,000 new titles published in the United States alone every year, even the most voracious reader cannot keep up with all of contemporary publishing, let alone the libraries of what has already been published. Readers are obliged to make choices, to set priorities among the vast supply of texts competing for attention. The canon is the body of writings endorsed as most worth reading. It is a weighty response to the question: Which ten (one hundred, one thousand) books would one take to an uninhabited island? More serious forms of this question include: Which books merit humanity’s most immediate and enduring interest? Behind such a question lie two more questions: Who makes that decision? On what basis?
The word “canon” derives from a Greek root meaning measuring rod. Canonical literary texts represent the standard against which any individual work is measured. Before the rise of modern secular literature, it was the Bible that provided the definitive canon for Western culture. The Bible (the words “the Bible” mean “the book”) is itself a compilation of disparate sacred writings accumulated over centuries.
During the Renaissance, when secular studies started to rival religious ones, a parallel canon began to be formed out of significant but non-Scriptural texts, works that came to be widely recognized as classics. Over the centuries in the West, a rough consensus developed that the writings of several authors (including classical Greek and Roman authors, Dante, Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, and John Milton) represent the summit of human literary achievement, that they articulate values crucial to Western culture, and that they are indispensable to any genuine education. Canons developed in other fields as well, including music and painting. While the literary canon was never as precisely formalized as the biblical one, its presence and authority have been manifest in high school and college curricula, in lectures and publishing programs, and in influential anthologies that purport to represent the most important authors throughout history. Some institutions, including the University of Chicago and St. John’s College, have attempted to base their curriculum on an undergraduate’s mastery of a set of great books. Elsewhere, classes in literary masterpieces attempt to cover the canon, and they are more likely to include [Greek philosopher] Sophocles than [horror writer] Stephen King. While sometimes permitted to study [science fiction writer] Robert A. Heinlein, English majors are often required to read [Middle Ages poet] Geoffrey Chaucer.
The canon, along with other institutions and practices in North America and Western Europe, has been subject to question and attack. Many argue that the canon is too narrow, that it is almost exclusively the product of dead white European males and needs to be opened up to authors from different backgrounds. Feminists fault anthologies and curricula for failing to include more than a few token women, and multiculturalists criticize the Eurocentric bias they find in the canon. The traditional canon seems almost entirely devoid of Black people, Asians, Latinos, and Indigenous people, for example. The existing canon is also charged with homophobic bias.
Liberal critics who attack the canon for being too narrow and who fight to reconfigure it to include previously excluded groups often nevertheless assume the basic validity and value of canonization. A more radical challenge to the canon comes from those who reject the concept of a canon, who argue that canons are inherently undemocratic and coercive. Instead of merely tinkering with the components of the canon, they call for a leveling of literary hierarchies, for a culture in which no text or reader is privileged over any other. There are no great books, they charge, because greatness is a political construction, one that gets in the way of analyzing all cultural activity. The remedy for Eurocentrism is elimination of all centers.
Conservatives respond to attacks by liberals on canonical choices and to attacks by radicals on the institution of canon by reaffirming the esthetic and moral value of those literary masterpieces that have managed to withstand the test of time. They insist that not all works merit an equal claim on humanity’s limited attention, and they refuse to reduce assessments of artistic achievement to a political algebra. Regardless of Milton’s race, gender, class, or sexual biases, Paradise Lost (1667), they maintain, is a masterpiece, and time spent studying it will enrich its readers. Because of the values that it embodies and its exemplary craft, the traditional canon, conservatives argue, ought to be the common heritage of every educated reader. For a student of literature, to be unversed in the canon is to be culturally illiterate.
Implications for Identity
Canon formation is neither as conspiratorial as some fear nor as democratic as others wish. It is the product of collective preferences expressed over time by critics, teachers, editors, publishers, and general readers. Some people manage to exert more influence than others. The biblical canon was determined by an ecclesiastical elite at a particular place and time, but the literary canon develops more gradually and openly, and it is never entirely settled. Otherwise, masterpiece anthologies would not be revised with such startling frequency. Comparison of a compilation of major poets published in 1900, when [19th-century American poet] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was still in high repute, with one published in 1950, when [17th-century British metaphysical poet] John Donne provided the ambiguity and complexity then thought to be the defining qualities of great poetry, reveal as much change as continuity. Herman Melville [author of Moby-Dick], among others canonized in the 1930’s and 1940’s as geniuses, was unknown a few years earlier. In the last decade of the twentieth century, [Victorian-era New Zealand author] Kate Chopin’s 1899 novella The Awakening became the most widely taught literary text in American universities; it was out of print a few years before. The vagaries of literary reputation ought to give pause to those who either champion or scorn the canon as a permanent body of timeless classics.
The Canon in the United States
Within the United States, the controversy over canon has been part of a larger anxiety over cultural identity, which became particularly acute at the conclusion of the Cold War, when, with the end of a common public threat, consensus over national purpose and character eroded. A massive increase in immigration, especially from Asia and Latin America, challenged traditional assumptions about the European cultural heritage of the United States. Divisions over whether Americans could share a common set of values and even a common language multiplied. The canon was a casualty of increasing fragmentation and polarization; if Americans could no longer agree on their histories and principles, it became difficult to identify a body of texts that all could esteem…
Readjustments of the canon are a constant sum operation. Absent any miraculous expansion in human capacity, addition of one text to the literary pantheon ordinarily necessitates subtraction of another. Time also continues to add books to the reading list. If the doors are pried open to admit [African-American author] Toni Morrison or [Chinese-American author] Maxine Hong Kingston, which author must be evicted to make room? The question certainly vexes if reading is confined to formal education and formal education is confined to the first three decades of an American’s life. When reading is reduced to a matter of classroom assignments, then it is crucial that the few books that one reads not be trite. Yet it is questionable whether any tidy pack of texts, however magnificent, can carry the burdens of an entire culture…
Source Citation: Kellman, Steven G. “The Literary Canon.” Identities & Issues in Literature, September 1997, pp. 1-3. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=103331INI17230170000300&site=lrc-live
Who Gets to Decide What Belongs in the Canon?
By Wesley Morris (2018)
Sometimes, it’s not enough to love something. You have to take that thing — album, author, song, movie, show — and do more than love it. It needs to be placed beyond mere love. You need to take that thing, wrap it in plastic or put it on a pedestal. You need to dome it under a force field so that other people’s grubby hands, opinions and inferior fandoms can’t stain or disrespect it. You need not only to certify it but also to forestall decertification. Basically, you need to make it “canon.”
The phrase didn’t originate on the internet but is of the internet and its wing of anti-discursive discourse. It places a work, a person or an idea beyond reproach. It pre-resolves debate. That is, of course, what a canon is — a settled matter. It’s established rules and norms. It’s the books of the Bible. It’s the approved Catholic saints. It’s Jane Austen, the Beatles, Miles Davis, Andy Warhol and Beyoncé.
Traditionally, the people drawing up our cultural canons have been an elite group of scholars and critics who embraced a work of art and sent it aloft to some deifying realm. That consecration has spread from academia to, say, Reddit, where fans gather around movies, TV dramas, video games and comic books the way the academy threw its weight behind Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Faulkner and Updike. “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Simpsons,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the DC and Marvel universes — they’re canonical, too. And now “canon” has migrated from noun to adjective, giving the word thunder and muscle and curatorial certitude.
In this sense, “canon” wants to keep something like “Star Wars” heresy-free and internally consistent (so yes, there are canons within canons). The series sprang more than 40 years ago from one man’s mind and a single movie. Now it’s an industrial complex whose thematic integrity desperately matters to its constituents. So when an installment infuriates fans — the way, in December, “The Last Jedi” did, with its apparent warping of the bylaws and powers of the “Star Wars” galaxy (this ISN’T how the Force WORKS!!) — they don’t simply complain. They say, “That’s not canon.” Last winter, a Change.org petition circulated, calling for Disney to “Strike Star Wars Episode VIII from the Official Canon” — as though it were some kind of Taco Bell tie-in, and not, as the title clearly states, the eighth part of a never-ending story — and more than 104,000 people signed on. The receptive response to that not-entirely-serious campaign underscores where we’ve been for some time with “canon”: nervous about the unfixed quality of all kinds of art and unyielding in policing both its meaning and possibilities.
On its face, canon-making is a fairly human impulse: I love this. Everyone else should, too! Over time a single book becomes a library; the library becomes a school of thought; the school of thought becomes a prism through which the world is supposed to see itself. That enthusiasm hardened, through curriculums, book clubs and great-works lists, into something more authoritarian, so that canon became taste hammered into stone tablets.
For many years its Moses has been Harold Bloom, whose “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages” was a best-selling sensation in 1994, for what it argued was — and by way of omission wasn’t — canon. In his introduction, Bloom went so far as to pre-emptively dismiss complaints about his biases as coming from the “school of resentment.” Asked in a 1991 Paris Review interview whom this school comprised, Bloom explained that it’s “an extraordinary sort of mélange of latest-model feminists, Lacanians, that whole semiotic cackle.” These people, he went on to say, “have no relationship whatever to literary values.”
But these people — women, along with nonwhite, non-straight folks — certainly could have shared Bloom’s literary values while also applying prerogatives of their own. Interrogators of both the canon and the canonizers have been dismissed as identity politicians rather than critics or scholars. The old guard claims that they’re missing the point of literature, thrusting morality upon an amoral pursuit, sullying the experience. Often however, they’re arguing not for literature’s restriction but for its expansion — let’s include Kafka, obviously, but also Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson and Jhumpa Lahiri no less obviously.
This questioning of the canon comes from places of lived experience. It’s attuned to how great cultural work can leave you feeling irked and demeaned. Bigotry recurs in canonical art. Shakespeare endures alongside analyses of his flawed characterizations of all kinds of races, nationalities, religions and women. Your great works should be strong enough to withstand some feminist forensics.
But resisting these critiques — whether it’s of “The House of Mirth” or the House of Marvel — with an automatic claim of canon, feels like an act of dominion, the establishment of an exclusive kingdom complete with moat and drawbridge, which, of course, would make the so-called resenters a mob of torch-wielding marauders and any challenge to established “literary values” an act of savagery. Insisting that a canon is settled gives those concerns the “fake news” treatment, denying a legitimate grievance by saying there’s no grounds for one. It’s shutting down a conversation, when the longer we go without one, the harder it becomes to speak.
Canon formation, at its heart, has to do with defending what you love against obsolescence, but love can tip into zealotry, which can lead us away from actual criticism into some pretty ugly zones. Our mutual hypersensitivities might have yanked us away from enlightening, crucial — and fun — cultural detective work (close reading, unpacking, interpreting) and turned us into cultural cops always on patrol, arresting anything that rankles.
Morris, W. (2018, May 30). Who Gets to Decide What Belongs in the ‘Canon’? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/magazine/who-gets-to-decide-what-belongs-in-the-canon.html