Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Beyond the Canon: Whither Beyond?

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Beyond the Canon: Whither Beyond?

Article excerpt


Within a history of the deployment of the term "canon", the author of this article investigates the possibility of an extra-canonical literature and the role of heritage and the futuristic in literature through reweaving by appropriation. The history of English as an academic discipline, the roots and consequences of essentialism and nihilism, and the problems in approaching a work of literature by means of a "What is x?" question are also considered.


Binne 'n geskiedenis van die aanwending van die term "kanon", ondersoek die outeur van hierdie artikel die moontlikheid van 'n ekstra-kanonieke literatuur en die rol van erfenis en die futuristiese in die literatuur deur dit met behulp van toe-eiening te herweef. Die geskiedenis van Engels as 'n akademiese dissipline, die oorsprong en gevolge van die essensialisme en nihilisme, en die probleme wat ontstaan wanneer literatuur met 'n "Wat is x?"-vraag benader word, word ook oorweeg.


Among the American academic debates of the last thirty years, the one over the Western canon was unique for provoking an intense, decades-long, public soul-searching on the nature, purpose, and future of liberal education in a tech-driven, capitalist, and pluralistic America. The genesis of this debate--which for many was a war, as evinced by its epithets "battle of the books", "canon wars", "culture wars"--could be traced to the publication in 1984 of Robert von Hallberg's Canons, an edited collection of sixteen essays that appeared, with a few exceptions, in Critical Inquiry between September 1983 and March 1984. Thereon, the debate attracted the who's who of America's English professoriate; writers such as Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Katha Pollitt; and, in an indication of the political anxiety it generated, two successive Chairpersons of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William J. Bennett (1981-1985) and Lynne V. Cheney (1986-1993) (See Morrison 1989; Pollitt [1991] 2005; Bennett 1984; Cheney 1987, 1992, 1996). Several contributions to the debate--among them, "Allan

Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy (1987), Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals (1990, 1998), Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (1994), and David Denby's The Great Books (1996)": all apologies for the canon--became bestsellers and, thus, were instrumental in letting the specifics and consequences of the debate become widely known (Morrissey 2005b: 1). Taking cognisance of the debate, Stanford University, in 1988, undertook a revision of its "Western Culture" curriculum, the upshot of which, besides a titular redo--"Culture, Ideas, Values" (CIV)--was one of its eight tracks requiring Western civilisation to be taught in a multicultural context (Searle 1990). Within two years of the Stanford revision, the University of California (UC) campuses at Santa Barbara (in 1989) and Irvine (in 1990) carried through theirs, this time, to ensure that freshmen are educated in the historical experiences of minorities within the United States (Grandjeat 2006: 29). The debate's success in influencing pedagogy notwithstanding--and perhaps because of it--the five years between 1988 and 1993 would witness critiques of the conditions and consequences of canon formation hitting a production overdrive.

Among the more discussed publications of this five-year period were Frank Kermode's History and Value (1988); Barbara Hermstein Smith's Contingencies of Value (1988); Arnold Krupat's The Voice in the Margin (1989); Alvin Keman's The Death of Literature (1990); Paul Lauter's Canons and Contexts (1991); Henry Louis Gates, Jr's Loose Canons (1992), Gerald Graffs Beyond the Culture Wars (1992), and John Guillory's Cultural Capital (1993). A British intervention in an otherwise American debate, History and Value, examined the relation between text and context, the conditions of literary survival, and why the canon becomes a historical necessity, while Contingencies of Value recommended the replacement non-controversial for the poststructuralist/postmodemist milieu of the time of objectivist/axiological models of literary evaluation with contingent--or more accurately, "contingently objective"--ones of utility dependent on, and determined by, social, political, economic, individual, institutional, and historical factors. …

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