Spring/Summer 1996, Volume 13.2
Contingencies of Canonicity
Paul Trout (Ph.D., U of British Columbia) is associate professor of English at Montana State University. His essays and reviews have appeared in Texas Review, Rocky Mountain Review, The American Book Review, and others.
There is little likelihood that the battle over the 'canon' is going to end in the "truce" called for by W. B. Carnochan in The Battleground of the Curriculum (113). But there are signs that some scholars on both sides of the issue are now willing to make the conflict less acrimonious and confusing than it has been. I am referring not only to the work of Carnochan but to that of Barbara Herrnstein Smith (Contingencies of Value), Charles Altieri (Canons and Consequences), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Loose Canons), Gerald Graff (Beyond the Culture Wars), and, most recently, John Guillory (Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation). Each of these scholars has deepened and sophisticated our understanding of what might be called the contingencies of canonicity.
But even in these carefully nuanced treatments of this complex and contested concept one can still find an unfortunate blurring of two highly charged shibboleths: 'canon' and 'curriculum.' For example, the very title of an essay by Patrick Hogan—"Mo' Better Canons: What's Wrong and What's Right About Mandatory Diversity—"reveals the author's confusion: the argument is not really for "mo' better canons" but for a "comparatist curriculum" of 'diverse' required courses. The tendency to run these two terms together can be found even in Guillory's Cultural Capital (1994), a subtle and provocative revisioning of the debate along class lines (see pages 3, 18, 34, etc.). Although 'canon' and 'curriculum' are indeed closely related terms, using them interchangeably confuses the issue. Is the demand to 'open up the canon' a demand to short-circuit or change the process of canon formation or merely a demand for more non-canonical texts in high-school and college courses? If we are to know what we are fighting about, and how to fight about it fairly and cogently, we need to distinguish between these two concepts.
The word 'canon' is deceptively easy to define but rather more difficult to explain. Simply, a canon is an assembly of texts (some fictional, some non-fictional) that a culture (i.e., people whose social roles allow them to influence such things) deems valuable and seeks to preserve. Every literate culture—Japan, India, New Guinea, Norway, China, Germany, Russia, etc.—has a national heritage of vernacular texts (novels, epic poems, plays, stories, biographies and autobiographies, sermons, histories) it publicly esteems and preserves.
But a canon is not necessarily a collection of national texts alone. A national canon can include texts from other countries as well. This is especially likely to occur when countries share the same language and, to some extent, history and cultural heritage, as, for example, in the case of Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and the United States. The canon of each country will include not only texts unique to each but a certain number deemed canonical in all five. For example, the national canons of the countries mentioned will likely include texts by Shakespeare and Swift, but only Canada will have canonized (if it has) works by Margaret Atwood, and only the United States will have canonized one or more of the novels of Richard Wright.
What makes the situation a little more complicated is that a number of texts from other ancient cultures, particularly Greece and Rome, are included in the national canons of most Western nations. Again, the operating principle is that of a shared cultural heritage, but this one being more attenuated and not sanctioned by a shared language. Since Western nations mutually agree that these texts are valuable and to be officially esteemed, one might say that there is a canon for Western civilization as well as a vernacular canon for each country within Western civilization. Exactly which texts constitute this canon, however, is by no means clear, an unsettling reality that has recently provoked Russell Jacoby to rhetorically ask, "What Western Civilization canon?" (104). To understand why this question is so difficult to answer, we must explore the contingencies of canonicity.
Why and how do some texts wind up in the 'canon' while others wind up outside it? This too is difficult to explain concisely. Let me begin by saying that the texts in the canon (I'll deal in a moment with the problem of knowing which texts are in and which out) are there (temporarily, as I shall explain) because they have undergone a lengthy winnowing process (canon formation) that has tested and 'proven' their enduring value to a specific culture. As Barbara Herrnstein Smith and others have demonstrated, this winnowing process is a function of a wide variety of cultural forces, none of them 'objective' or 'impartial.' Canon formation, in fact, is a highly contentious affair, involving the interplay of all kinds of forces—historical, antiquarian, economic, philosophical, demographic, aesthetic, cultural, political, etc.
The contentious process of canon formation resembles in some ways the messy but nevertheless highly effective process that winnows valid scientific claims from invalid ones. In the realm of science, an agent makes a claim that is then subjected to extended and intensive critique by other agents who have a strong incentive to debunk the claim. If the claim stands up to this hostile scrutiny, it is admitted as 'knowledge,' at least until new evidence modifies or undermines it. It seems to me that canon formation operates in a similar manner. Authors advance texts that are then subjected to all kinds of 'testing.' That is, the texts are published or performed, purchased, reviewed, analyzed, responded to, critiqued, misprisoned, further explained, overly praised, venomously traduced, emendated, altered, preserved or forgotten, rediscovered, republished, re-edited, re-reviewed, etc. This winnowing process is carried out by agents in diverse intellectual communities and social roles—editors, producers, writers, critics, readers and theater goers, librarians, reviewers, academicians, anthologizers, historians, collectors, biographers, dealers, promoters and advertisers (as far back as the eighteenth century!) and other socially sanctioned 'taste-makers' and culture producers.
What is absolutely required for this assessment process to work well is time. How much time is hard to say (Samuel Johnson suggested a hundred years), but most of the texts now in the canon have been undergoing this process for centuries, and some for thousands of years. Time is crucial because the ability of a text to withstand hostile scrutiny and to interest connoisseurs and experts with different political, social, religious, cultural and aesthetic values through the ages is an indication that the text is culturally valuable in a deep sense (and perhaps for more than one reason)—and not just a passing fad or the 'holy book' of one highly partisan interest group. As a result of this lengthy testing, the Western canon is composed of texts with manifestly dissimilar values and viewpoints, or as Altieri calls them, "idealized attitudes" (27). Thus, I agree with Guillory (33) that there is no merit in the argument (or postulate) that all canonical texts must share some fundamental, essentializing trait, such as ideological content or function. It is impermissible to begin any sentence with, 'All canonical texts….'
Although the results of this winnowing process are flawed, sloppy, time-consuming and difficult to comprehend, it is the most democratic and effective method that our civilization has evolved for assessing the complexity, depth and enduring value of cultural productions. It is certainly preferable to a more authoritarian or 'last-word' system that would put an end to the process through political power. At least in this system the process of winnowing and assessing never ends, even for 'canonical' texts, thus allowing for revision and repair of earlier judgments. But before I discuss the contingent status of all canonical works, I want to say more about the impulse to short-circuit the canon formation process.
As Guillory has shrewdly pointed out, throughout history every effort to 'open up' the canon is an effort to modernize the canon (30). This introduces another conflict into the process—a conflict not over this or that text but over the process of canon formation itself. Given that the canon-formation process requires time, contemporary texts—whatever the time frame—cannot fairly be declared canonical, although there may be a strong incentive to do so. These texts must undergo the same lengthy and contentious scrutiny that earlier texts have undergone. Since few will live long enough to see their favorite modern work or author duly canonized, there is a natural inclination to short-circuit the system or to declare the whole process of canon formation to be unfair. But there is no getting around the fact that the canon formation process takes time, and seems to be the best method for 'proving' the deep value of cultural productions. Modernizers will have to find contentment in knowing that all texts are eligible for eventual inclusion, and that the 'case' for including this or that text in the canon can begin immediately, as it did, for example, with Shakespeare's works, and as it has for Ernest J. Gaines ("A New Star in the Canon," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11 1994, A23).
Because the winnowing process never ends, even for texts deemed canonical, it is misleading to envision the canon—as both revisionists and traditionalists sometimes do—as a fixed list of unquestionably canonical works with a clear boundary separating 'ins' from 'outs.' As Guillory astutely recognizes, canonicity is far more amorphous than that. For him it is "an imaginary totality of works" to which no one has access because "the works invoked as canonical change continually according to many different occasions of judgments or contestation." The canon "never appears as a complete and uncontested list in any particular time and place, not even in the form of the omnibus anthology" (30). I suggest that the canon should be envisioned as a series of concentric circles, like those on a target, in which canonical works have varying degrees of canonicity. In other words, it is not a simple case of a text being either in or out of the canon, or even of canonical works having the same degree of canonicity.
At the center of the canon are works whose value has been tested for so long and been declared by so many that they are the least vulnerable to displacement by hostile re-assessment or by changing cultural, political, or intellectual fashions. Then at varying degrees from this core are canonical works that are, to various degrees, still undergoing—still relatively subject to—continuing re-assessment. One might say, in these cases, that there is slightly less consensus among cultural agents about how valuable these valuable works are. Again, this is a dynamic situation. As Albert Cook has argued in Canons and Wisdoms, canonical texts experience different rates of "assimilation" into the canon, with some texts moving towards the center (what Cook calls "brightening") and others towards the periphery (or "fading"), perhaps, to leave the canon altogether (147). Just outside the periphery are works about to 'enter' the canon—in time. Guillory has argued in a similar vein, distinguishing between major works, minor works, works read primarily in research contexts, works simply shelved in the archive. For him, the status of being non-canonical is not necessarily an indignity or an erasure; they are simply works not (yet) canonized (30).
Why not just declare those 'core' works to be the "canon" and have done with it? Because to posit a rigid or clear distinction between canonical and non-canonical works falsifies the historical and indeterminate nature of canon formation. Even in the case of texts deemed canonical by large numbers of taste makers over a long period, the canonicity of a given text is 'more or less' arguable and a matter of 'more or less' agreement among those who produce culture. In short, some texts are more canonical than others. If it's a matter of degree, then are any texts clearly non-canonical? Certainly. Some texts are simply not valued or treated as canonical works by a critical mass of agents actively involved in cultural production. Very few critics or academics, for instance, are likely to risk their professional repute by making a case that Mickey Spillane's I, The Jury is as valuable (in any way) as Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, Walden, or Ben Franklin's Autobiography. And suppose a few did; have other agents of culture production also behaved as if I, The Jury were as culturally valuable as these widely accepted canonical texts?
Can one determine which texts are 'relatively' in the canon and which texts are 'relatively' out? Yes, but only in a 'fuzzy-logic' sort of way. There is no master list or single source for this information because no one group controls the canon-formation process and the process never ends. (Academics like to think they do, but they don't, and it's good that they don't.) This uncertainty is disturbing but seems unavoidable given the way the democratic process works. People who are active in making culture—writers, editors, publishers, directors, teachers, reviewers, etc.—develop over the years a sense of which texts can plausibly be said to be canonical and which cannot, but ultimately the only way to determine if a given text is valued sufficiently to be called 'canonical' is to consult hundreds of different cultural indices, from 'great-book' lists and sales figures to academic curricula. This brings me to the other shibboleth I mentioned—the 'curriculum.'
A curriculum, as everyone knows, is a collection of courses offered by a department or university. These courses themselves are essentially containers filled, in part, by discussions (oral or written) of readings or texts chosen by the instructor (the model is from the humanities). The instructor's choice of texts is influenced by many factors—the availability of relevant titles in inexpensive editions, the nature of the course and the preparation and ability of the students, the instructor's experience and expertise, the instructor's pedagogic goals, the instructor's political and social values, etc.
One reason why 'canon' and 'curriculum' are so often confused is that academics—the ones usually writing about the issue—tend to assume that they and they alone are the custodians and arbiters of the canon. The 'canon' is reduced to 'what is taught,' as even Guillory seems to do when he says that it is only through the university "syllabus" that teachers can "have any access to the imaginary list which is the canon" (30; but a clearer view prevails on 29). This is nothing less than a power grab that serves the professional and psychological interests of humanities professors. As every literature professor knows, one way to imbue one's scholarly enterprise with status is to claim that the texts one teaches and publishes articles about are canonical, or deserve to be (a frequent claim of scholarly articles). Few professors are willing to admit the possibility that they are expending their precious and limited heartbeats obsessing on texts that have been forgotten for very good reasons.
Although the canon, as I have said, exists independently of the totality of courses taught and texts chosen, there is no denying that the canonicity of texts is to some degree—and to an increasing degree—affected by the treatment these texts are accorded within school curricula, especially university curricula. If a canonical text is rarely, if ever, taught, its canonical status will eventually suffer, simply because at some future time there will be few people who know the work or care to preserve it. A text that is not taught, or bought, or read, or referred to, or remembered, has apparently lost its cultural value and, in a functional sense, is no longer in the canon, or deserves to be. Yet, the canonical status of a work is not necessarily enhanced by its being chosen as a text. Indeed, a canonical work could have been chosen by the instructor to be discredited. When a critical mass of instructors attack a canonical text, its sales figures may go up but its status as a culturally valued text goes down (how far down, or for how long, no one can determine at the time). If these instructors are joined by a sufficient number of other taste-makers in the culture, especially publishers and writers, the work may very well be pushed to the periphery of the canon, or beyond.
Some courses are more likely to contain canonical texts that other courses, and there are perfectly legitimate courses in all areas of the humanities that contain no canonical texts whatever. For example, a course in Renaissance drama is more likely to contain some canonical texts than a course in the spy novel, an increasingly important genre that simply has not been around long enough to have yielded texts that a large number of taste-makers regard and treat as canonical. (Some spy novels are better than others, and a few are rightly considered accomplished works of literary art.) Yet even a course in Renaissance drama could be filled with texts that are not (yet) canonical (The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Tamburlaine, etc.). Clearly, then, archival and academically respectable texts are not necessarily canonical, though why Dr. Faustus is canonical and Edward II is not is hard to explain. Whenever we argue about this issue we must be aware that rubrics and course titles are one thing, and actual syllabi (or book lists) are another.
With these distinctions in mind, I now want to take up two closely related charges made against the 'canon' of Western culture (the same charges could be leveled against all canons, by the way): that it is exclusionary (racist, sexist, etc.), and, because exclusionary, psychologically harmful. The argument goes something like this: not only is it unfair that the opinion of people long dead should determine which works we should esteem, but the canon, made up almost solely of works written by European white males, clearly excludes works written by women and by ethnic minorities from this and from other cultures. As a result, the canon does not contain texts that sanction female and ethnic identity, and reflects and perpetuates values we now find inimical—such as sexism and racism—thus undermining the self-esteem of historically oppressed groups. Patrick Hogan's "Mo' Better Canons" is a fairly typical indictment of the canon along these lines. For Hogan, the canon is nothing but an "authoritarian, dogmatic" institutional "discrimination" founded upon "economic and political domination." Its "dogmatic insistence upon the value of European canonical works" is not only unfair to other works and cultures but encourages "ignorance of non-Western traditions." By excluding these works, the canon reinforces an ethnocentric "European male paradigm" whose aesthetic standards must be "whitemale" or there wouldn't be so many white males in the canon.
It is quite true that for most of history (and not just in the West), women, blacks, and other minorities were denied equal access to the intellectual and scientific establishment, as they were denied equal access to other endeavors. This regrettable fact is reflected in the make-up of the canon. I contend, however, that this fact does not itself discredit the nature of the canon or the relative impartiality of the processes that formed it. As Guillory explains, more women authors are not in the canon because they were routinely excluded from access to literacy, not because their works "were routinely excluded by invidious or prejudicial standards of evaluation, as a consequence of their social identity as women" (15). "By defining canonicity as determined by the social identity of the author, the current critique of the canon both discovers, and misrepresents, the obvious fact that the older the literature, the less likely it will be that texts by socially defined minorities exist in sufficient numbers to produce a 'representative' canon." It is wrongheaded, Guillory contends, to see a "homology" between how socially defined minorities are excluded from the exercise of power or from political representation, and how texts are "selected" for canonization (6). Canonical selection is not the same as social exclusion, nor does it depend upon it.
Canon-formation is a culture-bound historical phenomenon. The process of canon formation can only work on texts that exist, and the production of these texts is determined by a host of historical, social, cultural and demographic factors. There are no Anglo-African or Anglo-Japanese texts in the canon of English literature, for instance, not because the canon is 'racist' but because such texts did not exist (the issue of a canon of Commonwealth literature is too complicated for me to go into here). Nor did texts by women, until around the seventeenth century (I'm still speaking of England). One might deplore the social impediments that prevented, or made very difficult, the production of texts by women, but when women did produce them, the texts were not excluded from, but absorbed into, the lengthy process of assessment and re-assessment that creates the canon. There is no doubt that some critics, writers, and reviewers, especially in the past, introduced into this process their own hostility to women as writers. But despite this fact, texts by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson appear to be safely ensconced within the canon, and the works of many other well-known and highly esteemed women may be headed there. As scholars re-discover and assess the works of neglected female authors, the list of canonical texts written by women is likely to grow—in time.
But this explanation does not fully address the charge that some canonical texts are sexist. Yes, some are, but the best way to determine that is by looking inside the book, not inside the pants of the author. One of the most spirited pronouncements for giving women equal education came from Defoe, in 1693, the writer who created the character of Roxana and who put into her mouth one of the most unsettling attacks on marriage penned before Mary Wollstonecraft. Some canonical texts may have elements of racism in them too, such as texts by Karl Marx, but that doesn't undermine the canonical status of the texts but reminds us that these texts have been found to be enduringly relevant and valuable for many reasons, not necessarily because they flatter or please us, or because they are morally or aesthetically 'pure' according to contemporary standards. Which brings back to the critique on the canon made by Barbara Herrnstein Smith in Contingencies of Value. Smith argues that works cannot become canonical unless they are seen to condone the hegemonic or ideological values of dominant social groups (read 'white upperclass men'):
Since those with cultural power tend to be members of socially, economically, and politically established classes…, the texts that survive will tend to be those that appear to reflect and reinforce establishment ideologies…. They would not be found to please long and well if they were seen radically to undercut establishment interests, or effectively to subvert the ideologies that support them. (51)
Many canonical words do "tend" to reinforce widely accepted ideologies, but some also "tend" to undercut them, though perhaps never "radically" enough to satisfy the needs of adversary intellectuals longing for the End of Western Culture. Anthropologists such as Victor Turner have shown that cultures and societies increase their ability to adapt to changing environments—both natural and cultural—by resorting to 'anti-structural' rituals and artistic genres that problematize, throw into question, and undercut basic cultural and social assumptions. Thus, vernacular canons will contain many works that subvert and transgress unquestioned and hallowed 'hegemonic' values. But, as Guillory points out (26), there is no universal trait that characterizes all canonical texts.
It seems to me that one motivation for the current attack on the canon is anger and resentment that it does not include every text. This sounds absurd, I know, but this appears to be the reason for one critic's attack on Stanford's Western Cultures course:
The notion of a core list is inherently flawed, regardless of what kinds of works it includes or excludes. It is flawed because such a list undermines the critical stance that we wish students to take toward the materials they read…. A course with such readings creates two sets of books, those privileged by being on the list and those not worthy of inclusion. Regardless of the good intentions of those who create such lists, the students have not viewed and will not view those separate categories as equal. (Guillory 29)
In other words, all exclusion is odious. As Guillory points out, "it is difficult to see how the logic of such an argument would allow any works to be taught, since every syllabus of study selects some works rather than others." It is the fact that canons select at all that grieves today's egalitarians and inclusionists. Thus, Patrick Hogan's ideal canon is one that "excludes no one." Hogan further indicts the Western canon for having aesthetic standards that are "unfavorable to non-Western works" and for not "equally represent[ing]" "works of African or Chinese or Indian literature." In other words, what upsets Hogan is that the Western canon excludes anything from another culture and canon! The only possible thing to say to this absurd critique is, of course, what do you expect! All canons are necessarily exclusive and culture bound. Linguistically and demographically speaking, the process of canon formation can only work on texts produced within a particular culture. Is Professor Hogan equally offended that the canon of Japan includes The Tale of Genji but excludes The House of Seven Gables?
Now let me take up the argument that the 'under representation' of women and minorities within the canon harms the psyches of women, minorities, and even white males. This argument was recently advanced by Charles Taylor in his essay "The Politics of Recognition." According to Taylor, people need to have their identities 'recognized' or 'respected' by their culture. Identity, the result of social interaction with, and struggle against, "significant others," is negotiated through dialogue with people who matter to us. This dialogue—partly overt, partly internal—lasts our whole lives, even after those 'others' are long dead. But the dialogue can go wrong. Because identity formation is "dialogic," the amount and quality of recognition others give us is crucial to our personal well being and self- esteem. If others "mirror back" a "confining or demeaning or contemptible picture" of ourselves, and we internalize that picture, our identity can suffer "real damage, real distortion," including "the pain of low self-esteem." This means that "non-recognition or misrecognition" is not merely an insult; it is an attack that can "inflict a grievous wound" by saddling the victim with "crippling self-hatred." Thus, refusing recognition or projecting a humiliating image back to a person "can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being." Therefore, giving people "due recognition" or respect is not just a courtesy but a moral obligation.
According to Taylor, what is true for individuals is also true for groups. The identity and self-esteem of subaltern groups can be damaged when dominant groups withhold due recognition or impose on these groups negative stereotypes. "A person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves." To the extent that members of the subaltern groups internalize these negative messages, they engage in their own oppression.
Like many other multiculturalists, Taylor argues that the canon (meaning here the English/American canon), because it does not contain a sufficient number of texts written by women and ethnic/racial minorities, fails to give these under-represented groups 'due recognition,' thus injuring their self-esteem and academic performance. In a similar vein, the report of the New York Task Force on Minorities and Education (1989) claimed that the "monocultural perspective of traditional American education" contains a "hidden" assumption of "'white supremacy' and 'white nationalism.'" The report went on to say that "African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Puerto Ricans/Latinos, and Native Americans have all been the victims of an intellectual and educational oppression that has characterized the culture and institutions of the United States and the European-American world for centuries." The canon is harmful, in other words, because it is white; as a professor at Rutgers put it, "a lot of black people have been devastated by the assumption that black people never did anything, and when we did do anything there were other races involved in it."
Unfortunately, Taylor cannot support his surmises with any empirical evidence supporting the claim that the mere existence of a canon, or the mere reading of works by whites (or by women, or by gays, or by bald dwarfs) poses a threat to the mental health of minorities. With nothing solid supporting the notion that the canon somehow injures the self-esteem of some students, each person is free to surmise just how likely it is that significant numbers of women or college-aged minority students will be intellectually disabled by learning that most of the writers whose works make up the canon were European white males. I'm inclined to minimize the risk, given the number of women and ethnic minorities who have intellectually flourished thanks in part to reading works from the canon. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is just the latest of a long line of black scholars and authors who have testified to the empowerment they derived from canonical works (21). The slight risk reading canonical works might pose for the self-esteem of minorities and women could be reduced even more by explaining to them the contingencies of canonicity. If they understood the complex historical processes that go into forming a canon, they would be less likely to conclude, erroneously, that all creativity and worth inheres in males of European origin, or in blacks of African origin. As D'Souza has pointed out, the multicultural argument that ethnic or racial identity confers special knowledge or intellectual ability is harmful precisely because it disastrously reinforces the incapacitating notion that whiteness and maleness are indeed the cause of great civilization. Minorities and women, he advises, might do a lot better to challenge the proprietorship of canonical books—which are a common cultural heritage—than to attack the canon or the idea of canonicity itself.
Hogan argues that women and minorities would likely not exert proprietorship because they—like men—have a "spontaneous tendency" to prefer works with protagonists like themselves. In other words, the canon provides few opportunities for identification and ethnic solidarity. Notice that Hogan has shifted from authors to characters, a shift that actually weakens his case for "mo' better canons" because the canon does contain a number of powerful and sympathetic female and even minority characters that women and others can identify with, though the authors who created them were white males. But there's another problem here. Hogan believes that women can only identify with women (or blacks with blacks, etc.)—that gender (or race) is the necessary and sufficient condition for identification. But this is absurd. The reading experience of every human being testifies to the fact that men and women, whites and blacks, can and do identify with an amazing variety of characters of either gender and of any race or nationality. I may understand the fears of Shakespeare's Benedict, but I much prefer, and identity with, the anger and humor of his Beatrice. The possibility and benefits of gender-crossing identification has been discussed by Joshua Meyrowitz in his brilliant book, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Empirical studies, he reports, show that both males and females identify with models who are perceived as powerful or successful—"regardless of the sex of the model."
Hogan also is concerned that whitemale readers have so many whitemale characters to identify with they will not have the "opportunity" to free themselves from the narcissistic constraints of their (privileged?) identity. This assumes, of course, that all white males—both real and fictional—are the same in every significant way. This notion, of course, is too absurd to take seriously. The texts of the canon are wildly different and often mutually antagonistic; and the characters in these texts evince even more astonishing variety. Even if a whitemale were to read only canonical texts, his view of himself and others, and of the nature of social reality, would surely be broadened and problematized in various and unpredictable ways.
There is no denying that the canon does not provide equal representation for all conceivable cultural or ethnic demarcations. Indeed, it is an unavoidable fact that races, genders, and ethnic minorities are not equally represented in any facet of society and culture—for a number of historical, demographic, and social reasons. As Michael J. Pastore puts it, "equality is not retroactive" and all people have not "contributed in equal proportions to all things at all times." But how much harm, if any, does this truth cause? Almost all people and groups learn to live with the fact that they are not equally represented throughout culture. They either focus on representative examples available to them that might bolster their self-esteem or, in the absence of such examples, turn to other social venues to find the 'due recognition' they need. Asian students seem unfazed by the fact that Western history offers few examples of brilliant Asian mathematicians. White men, as well as women, Hispanics, Native Americans, etc., have to live with the fact that eighty percent of NBA players are black. This fact does not prevent the members of these 'under-represented' groups from occasionally making the NBA, or from just playing basketball, excelling in other sports and endeavors, or feeling good about themselves. People and groups devise ways of protecting their self-esteem from these 'demographic' and 'historical' micro-affronts.
I do not mean to suggest by my NBA analogy that blacks should find recognition only in sports, an area of culture where they undeniably excel. Far from it. As everyone knows, there are many famous and successful black musicians, artists, sculptors, scientists, physicians, technicians, dancers, singers, and creative writers. The very fact that there are so many valued black authors in our literary heritage, if not yet in our literary canon (except for Ellison and Wright, and maybe Baldwin, Hurston, and Ernest J. Gaines) should considerably offset the alleged potential psychological harm wrought by an almost entirely white national literary canon. Why should students, of whatever color, come to the conclusion that the white European males of the canon embody "all creativity and worth" when there are so many examples of accomplished and valued ethnic authors to refute this? Indeed, a number of highly successful black scholars are creating, justifying, and popularizing their own African-American canon, without, apparently, threatening the self-esteem of Jews, Asians, Hispanics, or whites (ironically, these alternative canons are the only ones to explicitly exclude writers because of their race and gender: see, for example, The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women).
What might further protect the increasingly fragile self-esteem of students and their teachers is the common-sense recognition that canonical authors are not the only authors. There are many great, significant, and rewarding authors outside the canon (at this time), and there is no law either requiring us to venerate canonical authors more than others or preventing us from reading whom we damn well please. Perhaps we should all learn to emulate Christian Scientists, who have managed to thrive and preserve their self-esteem despite the 'canonical' findings of the AMA.
The reason that these arguments against the canon seem so weak is that they are less about the canon than about 'opening up the curriculum,' another matter altogether. Although it is foolish to attempt to devise either a canon or a curriculum so egalitarian that, as Hogan puts it, "it excludes no one," it is possible, and advisable, to devise a curriculum that includes non-canonical and non-Western works, as even Dinesh D'Souza has argued (255). Knowledge of other cultures, even superficial knowledge, is a good thing, though knowledge of our own is better and even more necessary. As someone who teaches World Literature, I favor well-considered efforts to devise for our students mo' better curricula and courses, including ones that encourage them to read canonical and even non-canonical works from non-Western cultures. But this can be achieved without discrediting or "radical[ly] restructuring" (Hogan) the canon of our culture.
Altieri, Charles. Canons and Consequences: Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imaginative Ideals. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1990.
Atlas, James. Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.
Carnochan, W. B. The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.
Cook, Albert. Canons and Wisdoms. Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
D'Souza, Dinesh. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: The Free Press, 1991.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
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