Monday, June 6, 2016

To broaden the canon, teach the canon

Over the last 50 years there has been an increasingly heated debate in the academy around the Western canon -- a loosely defined set of texts, art, and other culture products which are considered a key part of a liberal arts education.

At its most base level, this debate might be expressed in the following way:

SJW: "This is all dead white guys! They are bigots and homophobes and Goddess knows what else! Dead white guys are disgusting and they shouldn't be inflicted on students!"
Bro-cademic: "The canon is the canon. It's not our fault most of the great art and literature comes from white guys. Suck it, haters!" 
However, as in most debates, the lowest-common-denominator framing is not all that fruitful. Cooler heads have raised sounder points, to wit:
Critic: The canon is a product of the times in which it was produced, and so it reflects a narrow experience and a narrow interest: mostly male, mostly white, mostly wealthy, etc. Like any institution dominated by a narrow elite (government, business, sport, etc.) the canon's elitism is self-perpetuating, and left unchecked is going to tend to reproduce and reify the dominance of the same narrow group that produced it in the first place. We need to consciously and deliberately take some of the emphasis off the traditional canon and make room for other voices and other experiences, with the end goal of a broader, deeper, richer Western canon.
Traditionalist: The canon is less like a room full of people to which you can add and subtract members, and more like a single interdependent organism which has grown up over several millennia. It isn't practical to force change upon it, any more than it would be practical to rip off several of your fingers because all ten are white.

What's more, while art and literature emerge out of a particular experience and a particular culture and time, they cannot be reduced to that, and if you are determined to do that you not only do not understand the canon, you do not understand art itself. Great art attempts to reach across the barriers of time and space, and through our shared human experience connects the past, present, and future, connects one gender to another, connects minorities and majorities, connects the privileged and the oppressed. We have removed many of the barriers to participation in the maelstrom of culture from which additions to the canon eventually emerge. To substitute an affirmative action of great art would be ineffective and destructive.
So how can we synthesize these views? Because it seems to me that both are true, and both truths are important. On the one hand, our society has discovered over and over that elites are self-perpetuating. If all of your investment bankers are white and male (which, incidentally, is pretty much the case) no one need stand on the barricades waving the banners of sexism and racism in order to keep them that way. People feel more comfortable with people similar to them: those are the people they mentor, hire and promote. People who do not see examples of people like themselves feel discouraged from entering the field. Those that do may find themselves under unfair scrutiny or hostility from those who do not identify as prejudiced but just "like things the way they are." Professors choosing books for their courses, publishers and reviewers (in whatever diminished form they continue to exist) are subject to the same sorts of bias.

Having recognized those dynamics, though, it is not easy to see what the remedy is. You can forcibly integrate a golf club or even a legislature: you can't forcibly add a great book ("great book") to the canon, because that is not how canonicity works:

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be stiled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind.

One might say: very well, we will not attempt to revise the canon, but merely de-emphasize it, as it has these obviously deleterious effects on the voices of traditionally excluded and marginalized perspectives. But that is problematic in another way, because the canon does not cease to exist because we don't teach it. You cannot broaden the canon by simply ignoring the canon. Things join the canon by imbedding themselves within it in a symbiotic way:
  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. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
The only way to broaden the canon is to participate in it. The only way to participate in it is to know it, and to know it well. So in the efforts to broaden the canon I would argue we should study it and teach it more intensively. Rather than encouraging students critical of canon to opt out, we should stand by the "dead white guys" as an essential part of a liberal arts education, especially for those who aspire to advocate change, whether inside or outside the academy.

Attempting to shove the Western canon to the margins in favor of more art and literature from non-Western traditions or modern authors from marginalized communities will not succeed, because while it will produce learners who know many interesting and useful things, they will not know the Western canon, and without knowing it their voices will be powerless to alter it in its courses.

I do not think this need doom marginalized voices to reproducing latter-day copies of ancient art, or internalizing the cultural oppression or justifications for systemic violence that are imbedded there. The teachers of the humanities in the Western world today lay great stress on recognizing these negative features of the canon, it's exclusions, ellipses, oversimplifications and caricatures, and I am sure that will continue.

Having as a guide this education, as well as their own perspectives and experience, the students (creators) of the future will be well supplied with the tools of critical engagement by the traditions of the canon itself. You need not go outside the canon to raise holy hell within it, as even a partial and incomplete list of the relevant tropes illustrates:

1. Parody -- Parody is as old as the canon itself. From Aristophanes to Cervantes, from Shakespeare to Henry Fielding, the simplest and most straightforward way of attacking bad art and bad thinking is to mock it in your own work.

2. Shift of focus -- There are many characters in the Western canon today who are antagonists or comic relief or simply bit players, which cry out for a skilled author or artist to bring their experience into sharper focus. Sometimes we seem to go against the author's intention by doing so; sometimes the seeds of empathy have been planted by the author and need only encouragement to flower. Caliban comes to mind as an example of a "villain" who prospers under this scrutiny; Shylock is another. From Shakespeare to "Wicked" to "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler," sometimes all the canon needs to be broader and deeper is to be turned on its head.

3. Appropriation of form -- Traditional tools and forms can be applied outside their original context, in a way that confuses our parochial natures by having the Other speak to us in the language of our own tribe. EM Forester puts on a clinic along these lines in "A Passage to India." My own favorite example of this comes out of the brutal anti-black race riots of the "Red Summer" of 1919, where white mobs used terrorism to reclaim a position of dominance which had been slightly compromised by WWI:

If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, 
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, 
Making their mock at our accursed lot. 
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, 
So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; 
then even the monsters we defy 
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! 
Oh, Kinsmen!  We must meet the common foe; 
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, 
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! 
What though before us lies the open grave? 
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, 
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

I believe in the strength and insight of this generation: teaching them the canon (with the acknowledgement of the canon's shortcomings) is not going to transform them into meek receptacles of tradition. Some say it makes them mad: let it make them mad. That can be a spur for growth, both on a personal level and for the whole tradition (1).

But they should be encouraged to love it despite sometimes hating it; that is the law of family, and if you are an artist, the artists that came before you are your family. Like a lot of older family members, an artist's family has members that are a little or a lot racist, may not have absorbed the lessons of feminism, and may sometimes think and say terrible things. But we don't get to chose our family, and they are still a vital link to our orgins. Love it, hate it, learn it, critique it: the best way to a more broad and inclusive canon is to teach it to those who can broaden it.

1. As one notable Dead White Guy once remarked: "Where there is much desire to learn, here of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making."