Canon, Revising the

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Canon, Revising the

One might best define canon formation as the process by which works of literature come to be considered classics. Although the value of particular authors or works has always been debated, it was not until the emergence of feminism and the social movements for racial justice of the 1960s and 1970s, and the academic disciplines they have spawned (women's studies, black and ethnic studies, multicultural studies), that the process of canon formation itself has been questioned. Until then, the canon remained a firmly entrenched exclusionary category whose very raison d'être was to seem unmovable. The higher education curriculum, in particular through such courses as "great books," or rhetorical categories such as "masterpieces," maintained a vision of cultural heritage that was overwhelmingly male, white, and European-derived, and in which the political and aesthetic effects of sexual orientation were carefully concealed. The canon thus enshrined "great men" and projected an ideological message of "greatness" inseparable from normative views about sex and gender and, in literary themes, of a safe handling of women as the objects of writing.

This questioning and the debates it has given rise to form one of the most important critical controversies of late-twentieth-century literary scholarship. In fact, challenging and changing the canon remains one of the principal issues for some literary scholars, whereas staunchly defending it is the objective of others. Charles Altieri, for example, sees the canon as both curatorial and normative, preserving a varied and rich cultural heritage, providing what he calls a "cultural grammar for interpreting experience" (Altieri 1983, p. 47). However, one can also argue that exclusion from the curriculum of works reflecting their gender or ethnic identities makes students feel disenfranchised, or irrelevant, an important aspect of the struggle to open the canon. In the traditional canon, far from finding a "shared heritage," many students—and instructors—do not hear voices that reflect experiences closer to theirs.


Canon formation has to do with how practices of reading and writing are organized by society, and academic institutions provide the primary contexts within which the canon is formed and revised. The reproduction and legitimating of texts, the regulation of what and how one reads is, to a large degree, determined by the academy, and also by the media and publishing industry. It is through the syllabus and curriculum that works are granted their status as great works. Canonical works appear more frequently in anthologies and on class syllabi. They are, typically, studied more often than other works in articles, books, and dissertations. They are more readily accessible in editions and translations, which, in turn, make them more accessible to future generations of students and scholars. They are, then, more present in the collective awareness. "They are culturally important because they have been culturally important" (Scholes [paraphrasing Smith] 1992, p. 148). There is thus a circular, self-perpetuating aspect to canon formation that accounts, in part, for the enormous influence of the canon and for the difficulties involved in reshaping it.

The etymology of the term canon provides some useful insight into both its function and its power. The ancient Greek kanon, meaning straight rod, bar, ruler, standard, or instrument of measure, eventually acquired a secondary sense of law or rule. Moreover, rich resonances can also be found in the word's relationship to the ancient Greek kanna (reed), and its descendant cane, which suggest the idea of severity or imposition of power as in "to cane" or beat with a stick (Scholes 1992, p. 139). In Alexandrian times, kanon referred to a body of superior texts, models of style and composition (Scholes 1992, p. 140). In the fourth century ce the canon came to signify, in particular, the accepted Christian sacred writings (as opposed to the apocrypha). In a similar vein, individuals seen to have lived exemplary lives were and are canonized. Thus, the notions of power, exemplarity, orthodoxy, and of a body of received, institutionally fixed texts are implicit in our current usage of canon.

Homogeneity is central to any categorization, including canon-formation. Canonical works are precisely that because they are perceived to share certain timeless qualities. Thus some critics suggest that the alternative to homogenizing works in this static manner involves historicizing them, and the process by which they were canonized in the first place (Guillory 1990). Rather than as repositories of truth and beauty, canonical texts can be seen as the embodiment of certain historically grounded critical practices that privilege one type of reading, and therefore one type of text, over another. For example, New Criticism's valuing of certain types of poetic discourse over others can be seen as promoting the work of the critic. That is to say, complex texts fraught with ambiguity, tension, and irony require the interpretation of the literary scholar as they are not readily accessible to the masses. In addition, the emphasis placed by the New Critics on masterpieces—individual works of art—rather than tendencies, led to disinterest in the social and cultural context in which all works are created. Thus a canon was formed which at once served the interests of the critic and dehistoricized the works of which it was comprised (Lauter 1991).

Texts can be made canonical against an author's full range of beliefs, and certain works can be carefully excluded, in fact, obliterated, from the canon. A case in point is provided by the posthumous fate of the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844–1896). Primarily seen as producing a dreamy, evanescent, melancholic evocation in rhythmic verse of loss and the passage of time, Verlaine also authored fierce, vengeful, political poetry denouncing the massacres of the 1832 and 1834 insurrections, and the repression of the Paris Commune (in which he participated), praising the insurrectional leader Louise Michel (1830–1905) (Choury 1970). He also penned sexually aggressive and explicit erotic poetry such as Les Amies (1867), where he depicts lesbianism (Milech 1994), and Hombres (1891), in which he perhaps coded his homosexual orientation (Minahen 1997). All these works are excluded from the "canonization" of this author in school manuals and even university curricula, and rarely, if ever, written about.

Further, a study published in 1998 suggests that graduate reading lists are more idiosyncratic than one would think. Of a survey of fifty-six Spanish graduate course reading lists, only Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) and Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605) appeared on all lists. Among the authors' conclusions are that a substantial canon does not exist within Hispanism, and that canon formation "appears to take place only in microcosm; the canon for each institution evidently is shaped independently at the departmental level. The large numbers of authors and works that appear once only among fifty-six reading lists indicate that in many cases, individual convictions about the canon are just that—the opinion of one language faculty or perhaps even one specialist at a single university" (Brown and Johnson 1998, p. 6). This data suggests, then, that to some degree canons are shaped by the individual ideological and critical preferences of the members of the profession, who then implicitly reinforce and perpetuate the selection through course curriculum, exam questions, dissertation topics, and so on.


In the 1980s and early 1990s, the canon was energetically challenged in higher education across North America. With respect to sex and gender, battle lines were drawn over the greater inclusion of women in this institutionalized selection. Another issue was the inclusion, not merely of lesbian and gay figures per se (writers such as Walt Whitman [1819–1892], Emily Dickinson [1830–1896], or Colette [1873–1954] were already part of the canon), but, rather, of sexual orientation and queer sensibilities as crucial to artistic and intellectual production. Important female literary figures that had been heretofore neglected became, themselves, canonic. Examples of canon reformation are found throughout the various languages and literatures. In American literature, for instance, poets like Audre Lorde (1934–1992), named State Poet of New York from 1991 to 1992, Adrienne Rich (b. 1929), and Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980) enjoyed recognition beyond belonging to a feminist/lesbian canon. French medieval author Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) went from being a mere sideline in the medieval canon to becoming a foundational and authoritative figure (Quilligan 1991) of medieval and early French letters, whose work gives rise to many reinterpretations (Richards et al 1992, Desmond 1998, Brownlee 2005) and to substantial international conferences (Hick et al 2000). In Spanish literature, María de Zayas (1590–c. 1661) is an excellent case in point. Although she was a bestseller in seventeenth-century Spain, she was all but unknown until the 1970s and the veritable explosion of Zayas criticism that followed in the 1980s and 1990s. Because of critical attention paid to her, mostly by female scholars, she has become recognized as an important foundational figure in Spanish women's writing (a status previously enjoyed by only St. Teresa of Avila [1515–1582] and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz [1648–1695]—and not always, at that) and is routinely included in graduate reading lists as well as undergraduate and graduate curricula. In the Luso-Brazilian field, Clarice Lispector (1920–1977) had long been the sole woman writing in Portuguese to be represented in anthologies and reading lists (indeed, she remained the sole Lusophone author included in the 2003 Norton Anthology of World Literature), but by the turn of the twenty-first century graduate courses and reading lists were making room for other Brazilian authors such as Nélida Piñon (b. 1937) and Lídia Jorge (b. 1946). Yet the Argentinian poet Alfonsina Storni (1892–1938) is the only twentieth-century female author writing in Spanish included in the 2003 edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature.

However, even with more inclusive bodies of texts, the critical tendency to make normative claims while silencing differences among texts remains prevalent. The Latin American canon has expanded in various ways to include earlier authors like Teresa de la Parra (1889–1936), virtually unknown until rescued by critics, and the many women writing since the 1980s, contributors to the so-called "boom femenino." Yet this growing body of work by Latin American women has prompted critical and theoretical generalizations that tend to homogenize texts in their attempts to define and categorize them (Shaw 1997). Deborah Shaw argues, "Notions of multiplicity, diversity, and mestizaje are crucial if we are to avoid the overgeneralized pronouncements on the literary production of the mythical Latin American woman" (p. 170).

The far-reaching modifications of the canon as a result of these debates and interventions vary immensely, as some cultural attitudes are tougher to break than others. There is indeed a big difference between simply adding women to lists of authors or artists and actually destabilizing the gender order, or debunking assumptions about sex and sexual orientation. Homophobia in the classroom itself continues to severely affect the ability of instructors to present new texts, particularly those that address homosexuality and AIDS. There are also regional, local, and educational tier (community college versus university) differences that continue to shape the canon in terms of what is taught regarding sex and gender in relation to local politics and the degree of conservative political control over the curriculum (Eisner 1999).

In terms of general curricular reformation, colleges and universities throughout the United States are transforming their course of study as it is generally recognized that knowledge about diversity both at home and internationally is crucial to students' intellectual formation. In addition, students in U.S. universities themselves constitute a larger and more diverse group than ever before. Data gathered by the American Association of Colleges and Universities suggests that a majority of institutions of higher education either already have in place or are in the process of instituting some type of diversity requirement. At some colleges, women's and gender studies courses comprise one element of a multifaceted diversity requirement. At other institutions, students are required to take one or a number of courses addressing diversity in its various aspects (ethnic studies, multicultural studies, women's and gender studies). Research suggests that diversifying the undergraduate curriculum has had positive effects and that, contrary to the claims of some critics, is resulting in a more rigorous program of study for students (Humphreys 1998).


Similarly, the place of women artists in movements, schools, and moments, albeit contested, is secure enough to prevent their total exclusion, even if the criteria for defining "great" or "leading" artists remained similar to those of literature. The importance of women like expressionists Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) and Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), the lesbian-identified surrealist Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob, 1894–1954), abstract expressionist sculptor Louise Berliawsky Nevelson (1899–1988), French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911), painters Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) and Judy Chicago (b. 1939), is evident in special museums, museum collections, retrospectives, and art histories. Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) was not only rediscovered by feminist art and cultural critics, but her work has been vastly popularized. A Web site dedicated to her ("Frida Kahlo and Contemporary Thoughts" by Daniela Falini) includes a "cult" button in its menu, and countless plays, musical and dance performances, art exhibits, films, and installations celebrate or echo her life and work.

Yet it was as late as the 1970s that women artists openly challenged their exclusion from the art pantheon (Broude and Garrard 1994). In 1971 Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro (b. 1923) founded the CalArts Feminist Art Program and one of the first feminist art shows, Womanhouse (30 January-28 February 1972). The first women's gallery, A.I.R., was founded at that time. Feminist scholars such as Mary Ann Caws, Linda Nochlin, Mary Garrard, and numerous others rewrote the history of art itself. Women artists of all stripes were being regularly rediscovered and reinterpreted, for instance in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art retrospective of 1976. Women artists, revalued through careful attention to their associations and learning environments (Weisberg and Becker 1999), are no longer viewed as muses, models, and understudies for men, but as actual producers of art (Caws 2000, on Dora Maar; Bal 2005, on Artemisia Gentileschi).

From the "eccentrics" of modernism (Caws 2006) to contemporary artists, in the face of a male canon that excluded them, independent, original, groundbreaking women have inspired an influential counter-canon of their own, sustained by international recognition. These might include multimedia artist, sculptor, painter, and philosopher Adrian Piper (b. 1948), conceptual artist Barbara Kruger (b. 1945), or installation artist Jenny Holzer (b. 1950), who takes art into the public sphere through LCD displays such as in New York City's Times Square or stickers with texts on parking meters and telephone booths. Her interactive web installation "Please Change Beliefs," which invites viewers to click on a constant string of textual material that challenge truisms, illustrates the often rebellious character of women's art. Yet, while the canon of art has thus changed, the representation and status of women artists remains on an average still below that of men, and is contested by cultural agitprop groups like the Guerrilla Girls, with highly visible public actions such as their intervention at the 2005 Venice Biennale, cartoon-style books that lambaste the male stranglehold on art and the place of women in major art museums, for instance through posters asking such questions as "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?" (


In effect, while the cultural revolutions of the last few decades have greatly modified the literary canon, the canon is not about to disappear. It is in of itself an insidious notion that is difficult to shed: it creates an intellectual safety net of comfort, convenience, protection that "great works" are permanent, familiar, and easily accessible, as well as imparting to a large readership the notion of a shared culture.

Attention to gender, women's, and ethnic studies has also brought to light that there is not one single unified, but several, canons. Some of these can have a venerable history of their own, in turn affected by ongoing debates on gender and sexuality. If there is an African American "canon," it has included women all along (Foster 1997). African American literature indeed counts women such as Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784), Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813–1897), and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) among its founding figures, and gay men such as James Baldwin (1924–1987), or internationally acclaimed women authors such as Toni Morrison (b. 1931) among its defining authors. It has a different relationship to establishing the contours of a community of readers and a collection of "great works" than the dominant white male canon. As a literature priding itself in a resistant role to racial and social injustice, it has been very often willing to embrace the exposure of the relation between structures of power and sex and gender, between racism and patriarchy, and forms of exclusion based on gender and sexuality, even in its "canonic" works.

Even though the canon of the past appears to have been seriously damaged and impaired, tensions remain between change and backlash initiatives. It remains to be seen whether twenty-first-century government attempts (the Spellings Commission Report of 2006, for example) to regulate colleges and universities in the name of greater accountability and higher standards will have the effect of reinstituting a more restrictive canon, or perhaps undoing some of the gains made since the 1980s by groups underrepresented in the traditional canon. The proposed standardized testing for the goal of outcomes assessment aims to address, among other things, what some see as the cultural illiteracy of early twenty-first-century college students. Critics fear that the establishment and application of single sets of criteria to all colleges and universities will discourage not only institutional diversity, but curricular diversity as well.


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                                            Diana Conchado

                                 Francesca Canadé Sautman