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The Canon(s)?

Wherein we discuss the concept of "canon," "canonicity," and the possible interpretations and iterations of different canons.
by

James Sherwood

on 29 April 2010

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Transcript of The Canon(s)?

OED and etymology The Western Canon Harold Bloom
St. Johns "Great Books" curriculum
http://www.interleaves.org/~rteeter/grtbloom.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John%27s_College_%28United_States%29#The_Great_Books Columbia college core curriculum: "Literature Humanities" http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/classes/lh.php http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_canon "Works which are commonly included in the canon include works of fiction such as some epic poems, poetry, music, drama, novels, and other assorted forms of literature. . . . non-fiction works are also listed, primarily from the areas of religion, mythology, science, philosophy, economics, politics, and history." "Canon descends from an ancient Greek word, kanon, meaning a 'reed' or 'rod' used as an instrument of measurement." --Entry on "Canon," John Guillory in _Critical Terms for Literary Study_, University of Chicago Press, 1990 No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past...

In a peculiar sense he will be aware also that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. . . It is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other. . . . http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html --T.S. Eliot: "Tradition and the Individual Talent" 1922 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books the eastern canon
eastern canon •Relationship between Eastern and Western Canons
•Role of translation
•Who is represented and who is not
•Impacts on canon formation
Japanese literature
Chinese literature
Indian literature
Islamic literature
Influences of translation on the Western perception
of the Japanese Canon: Role of publishers in shaping American views of Japanese literature
Connection to historical circumstances
Books chosen not based on aesthetics alone, but on how well they fit a western audience’s preconceived ideas of Japan
Anthologies
The importance of anthologies in influencing
the Western perception of a literary canon: Act as an overview of the national literature
Highlight for readers the importance of certain authors to the literary canon
Act as a catalyst for readers going to find more works by the authors they have enjoyed reading.
Influences of translation on the Chinese Canon: History
Popularity of works vs. aesthetics
Ideology
Role of politics in creating canon “Ideologically akin to the Soviet Union, China was once heavily influenced by its mode of canonization, which was both arbitrary and brutal. Many dissident writers were imprisoned, executed, or driven into exile as the Soviet canon developed, and in the 1950s no one in China was allowed to question the Soviet canon or to criticize any work in it…Inevitably, Chinese literary production was not simply influenced but determined by canonical Soviet texts.”
-- Sun Yifeng
Influences on Indian canon: Role of translation on formation of canon:

Unity in diversity
Influence of translation on the Western perception of Islamic Literature: Role of translation:

Difficulty in translating the Arabic language
Canon formation in the future “It is well known that in modern times, India, China, Japan, Africa, and other so-called non-Western regions and their cultures have been deeply and irreversibly affected by Western languages, cultures, power plays, and economics. We need to recognize that the reverse is also true and will become increasingly true.”
-- A.K.K. Ramanujan
The Western Canon as we know it: •Originated in the 18th Century

•While the early canon consisted of great works by authors like Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton, early canonizers like Joseph Addison conceived of the canon as a way to refine the English language.

•By the middle of the century, the canon became a celebration of the ancient writers.

•Mid-century canonizers like Joseph Warton and Samuel Johnson disliked the rise in power that women gained because of the rise of the book trade.

•By the end of the century, the canon returns to the closets and libraries with critics acting as gatekeepers.
the formation of the western canon The Book Trade: •For Addison print culture allowed for a sociability of society not limited to entitlement.

•Books democratized literature and literacy.

•The widespread availability of books allowed readers to construct meaning in texts for themselves rather than needing a critic to inform the reader what to think.

•Changed the concept of the reader from a construction of the editor or critic to an impersonal being.
Literature: •Literature was officially born on February 22, 1774 when the House of Lords defeated a proposal of “perpetual copyright,” which was favored by London booksellers. The Lords thought that works of the canon should be part of the public domain, owned by everyone.

•_Litteratura_ was a Roman concept meaning “either the ability to form letters or, more usually, the quality of being widely read. In an age when books were comparatively scarce, being widely read meant being well-read.”

•Literature originally included all works of writing, not just those that relied on the imagination.

•Literature became another commodity to sell, but because of a fear of the feminizing of society, “good” literature became something defined narrowly as ancient writers, not contemporary ones.

•Rhetoric -> _Belles Lettres_ -> Literature
Elements that led to the change in the definition of literature: •Expansion of reading public

•Displacement of patronage because of the book trade

•Switch away from prescriptive rhetorical standards, instead favoring a “kinder, gentler didacticism”
* Rather than bullying the reader to agree with you, writers began to allow readers to make their own judgments •Rise of commercial humanism * A citizen in exchange for surrendering his autonomy, became a specialized, private, decentered individual who refined his moral being through social intercourse of human relations and products including literature and the arts (rise of the arts as a commodity) The Aesthetic Theory of Art: •Defined in the middle of the 18th Century to denote works that serve no other purpose than that of pleasure and amusement.

•Art in Aristotle’s time originally stood for “any rule-governed production in imitation of nature.”

•The arts owes its redefinition to Locke, Hobbes and Descartes in the 17th Century who redefined imagination as something connected to our senses rather than intellectual functions.
Two most influential gay authors in the mainstream Western canon:

•Oscar Wilde



•Walt Whitman
early taxonomy of the canon •Universal appeal: “The sand heaped by on flood is scattered by another, but the rock always continues in its place. The stream of time, which is continually washing the dissolute fabricks of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakespeare.” –Samuel Johnson (Kramnick 1098)

•The test of time: “no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem.”

•Linguistic distance and aesthetic difficulty became important elements in the middle of the century.
what do you think the criteria ought to be for canon formation? the (literary) canon(s)? What do you think of when you think of the word "canon"?

What did you read in school?

Why do you think you read what you did?

Who made those decisions? Why?

What about those works made them worthy of assigning to students year after year?
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. http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng211/canon_of_english_literature.htm . . . the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

[He must leave] no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. . . . He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

. . . I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

—excerpted from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Banquet speech, December, 1950.
http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1949/faulkner-speech.html modern canon formation "Since there is no single 'canon' of English literature, there is no single cultural activity that can be said to 'reform' it, but canon formation is going on every year . . . It all starts with respecting and being suspicious of the Norton Anthology as a representative selection of canonical literature.

Unlike the canon of the Christian Bible, there really is no single, agreed-upon canon of English literature, but people often act as if there were. (In fact, even if you are a Christian, you choose a different Bible by choosing the sect of Christianity you follow—the sects do not agree among themselves.) Who chooses what works are in the Norton and who polices that decision? The process starts with the Norton editors, of course, but their choices are founded in the work of scholars publishing articles or books, or giving talks at the MLA Convention, and the resulting versions of the English literary canon are taught by English Departments . . ."
http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng211/critique_and_practice_of_canon_formation.htm how did this come to be? ...and we move to the eastern canon(s) now what? Alternative Canons within the Western Tradition No canon is rigid and fixed; all canons change over time. But what forces produce these changes? How does the process of canon formation occur? Canon formation is not a natural process that is governed by “objective aesthetic laws,” but is instead the product of many cultural, political, and historical forces (Corse 174).

By studying the formation of the following three alternative canons, we shall see how they moved from the periphery of the Western canon toward a more central position in our cultural discourse.
1.African American Canon

2.Women’s Canon

3.Gay Canon
African American Canon In the early 20th century, the African American canon was categorized in this manner:

“Literature which most eloquently refuted white racist stereotypes and which embodied the shared ‘theme of struggle’ … [and was] unified thematically by self-defense against racist literary conventions” (Corse 184).
Formation of the contemporary African American canon •Institutional Contexts

•Resources on African American authors and works

•Criticism and secondary sources by African American scholars

•Professional network of scholars on African American literature
Example: Zora Neale Hurston’s _Their Eyes Were Watching God_
Three crucial revisions occurred in the cultural and academic discourse that brought the African American canon into the mainstream:

•“New understanding of evaluative criteria” by which the works were judged

•Reconstruction of works’ “narrative meanings”

•Change in the “critical position” of the works

These changes brought new works to the forefront of not only the African American canon, but also the “mainstream American canon” (Corse 182).
women's canon •Women’s writing is historically seen through a cultural, social, and historical lens, as opposed to an aesthetic lens
“Women’s writing is […] perceived as a practical interaction with the social environment rather than a literary achievement.” (Eardley 273)

•“Literary isolation” of female authors (Eardley 273)

•In search for “authentic female voice,” writers reject formal literary conventions as “oppressive” (Eardley 274); women as outside of established literary paradigm, and therefore out of the conversation (Eardley 278)

•Scholarly interest in women’s writing is “political, not aesthetic” (Eardley 274)

•Women’s writing seen as having “little or no artistic merit” (Eardley 275) – only social, historical, or political significance

•Women’s writing as bending genre conventions, alternative and challenging aesthetic principles (Eardley 272)
Do we need a different set of cultural criteria to evaluate women’s writing?

•Considerations of Genre: Diaries, letters, other correspondence, etc.
Women historically wrote more frequently using these forms, as they did not receive the formal training that their male contemporaries received. (Eardley 272)

•Need for more research regarding female writers and their works (Eardley 278-9)

•Reason for the gaps in scholarship regarding the “formal aspects of women’s writing” lies with “political reservations rather than the nature of the material” (Eardley 281) – sexism, misogyny
Women as part of larger literary communal discourse

•Women as consumers of literature (Eardley 283)

•Intertextuality (Eardley 283)

•Lack of purely “female literary tradition?” (Eardley 285)
•Many authors who occupy prominent positions in the mainstream Western canon were in fact homosexual or bisexual

•Many texts in the mainstream Western canon deal with issues of homosexuality, or contain homosexual undertones

•Therefore, gay writing is not “noncanonical” in the same way that African American and female writing has been (Haggerty 285)
gay canon Defining a New Canon

•The question of the gay canon is not a matter of identifying a different canon; it is a matter of finding a new way to define the existing canon (Haggerty 286)

•“The male homosexual tradition in Western literature is nearly indistinguishable from the Western tradition as it has always been known.” (Haggerty 296)

•So, how do we define the existing canon to recognize the vast influence of gay authors and themes?

•Historical Context / Social and Political Context

•Queer Reading

•Attempt to understand the author and his historical / social context
Also, attempt to understand the “history of sexuality” (Haggerty 289)

•Place of Women
•Influence of Non-Western literary culture on mainstream Western canon

•We need to develop a new form of criticism, or a new critical paradigm, that synthesizes all aspects of works, and is not trapped within the boundaries of any one strict critical discourse.

•Need to “invent a new, historically reflexive, way of using categories.” (Eardley 282)

•“New way of reading is even more important than a new list of what to read.” (Haggerty 292)
what about other canons within the western canon? --Angela Coutts A prezi by James, presented by James, Karen, Michael and Noam, for Issues in Literacy for Diverse Learners, 4.28.2010
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