Friends and Enemies of the Canon – Roy Turner

Roy Turner
Roy Turner

“The philistine is shocked by the contemporary, for the latter simply seems to deny quality, not only to the canonical works themselves (John Cage: “Beethoven is shit”) but also to the cultural identity and social standing that a love of the classics provides the philistine. The philistine respects what Nietzsche calls “those feeble and egoistic sensations promised by our concert halls and theatres to anyone who can pay for them,” and mistakes their consumption for a sign of connoisseurship and sensitivity”

Dr. Roy Turner, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, also served as Professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto. Turner was one of a group of Erving Goffman’s students at Berkeley in the 1960s who, through Harvey Sacks (also a Goffman student), were introduced to the work of Harold Garfinkel at UCLA, and came to comprise the post‐1967 first generation of practitioners of ethnomethodology (EM) and conversation analysis (CA). Turner’s work in these genres includes the seminal 1970 paper “Words, utterances and activities” that recovers the importance of J. L. Austin’s linguistic‐philosophical analysis of How To Do Things with Words for sociological inquiry. In 1974 Penguin published his edited collection Ethnomethodology: Selected Readings. He subsequently moved on from EM/CA to take up a form of cultural criticism influenced initially by the “Analysis” of Alan Blum and Peter McHugh at York, but then more strongly by Hannah Arendt. He has published two articles in the online journal Philosophy Now, “Did Duchamp’s Urinal Flush Away Art?” (2008) and “Ethics Made Easy: ‘Feel Good, Do the Right Thing’” (2010).

Friends and Enemies of the Canon – Roy Turner

The canon comes before us today chiefly as the target of various acts of repudiation; students at Stanford University seem to repudiate the very tradition that has formed them, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go”; Douglas Crimp, an editor of October, tells us, in effect, that since Rauschenberg all art hitherto has been made irrelevant; Eugene Donato dismisses the museum’s claim to be a spokesperson for tradition by proposing that, without the support of a fiction that cannot be sustained, the museum is no more than a warehouse full of bric-a-brac. In the domain of education we see the canon everywhere set aside in the interests of “relevance,” “interests,” or “method”.

Repudiation, of course, serves as one of the ways a culture represents and makes a place for matters that figure in its life and in its anxious deliberations about that life. So we shall not say that this negative regard betokens the death of the canon; like Friedrich Nietzsche’s God, it continues to live in the announcement of its death. The turmoil at Stanford makes clear the fact, which needs elaboration, that the status of the canon is inextricably caught up with the character – even the existence – of the public world and public life. Though less obviously, the place of the canon in art and criticism, too, speaks to the question of what may or shall appear in public, and hence to how a culture represents its sense of what is worthwhile and definitive. The speech against the canon is not simply an argument against complacently established “classics” and “old masters” but is inspired by the wish to be free of tradition, of history – in short, the wish to be only contemporary, to have no provenance.

If our topic is the complex relationship between the idea of culture and the idea of the canon, it is important to keep cultural usage concerning canonicity in front of us. Otherwise we are likely to jump prematurely into abstraction. Ludwig Wittgenstein offers guidance as to the connection between cultural usage, with which one begins, and the place invulnerable to usage that one aims to occupy. David Pears nicely characterizes Wittgenstein’s sense of the relationship of philosophical thinking to the confusions of ordinary language:

The philosopher is driven by a passionate desire to understand the limits of language, and, when he tries to satisfy this desire, the first thing that inevitably happens is that his mind is filled with images which, though they are delusive, have a primitive naturalness which he must experience. Then, and only then can he go on to achieve the understanding that he seeks. If he tries to go straight to the second stage without going through the first one, he will suffer from what Wittgenstein calls “loss of problems.” (126)

What I understand Pears to be saying is that the philosopher must always, and necessarily, experience the “confusions” of ordinary language and keep in mind the culture’s various and conflicting manifestations of the phenomenon, not simply as a methodological aid to doing philosophy, but as a recognition of the philosopher’s own humanity and participation in the life that sustains and is sustained by those manifestations. The social theorist, too, must respond to cultural representations without either endorsing or dismissing usage, since each of these alternatives obliterates the space for analysis. The consequence of forgetting the need to be in touch with representations of phenomena is the production of arid work that indeed gives us a sense of “loss of problems.” Michael Walzer reaches a similar conclusion on the basis of an entirely different account of social philosophy, arguing that social criticism that divorces itself from “local understandings” and “disconnects” itself from cultural formulations risks being asociable and manipulative. In Walzer’s account, the “connected critic” resists the temptation to be abstract (to lose the problems) and follows the Aristotelian advice to “work with the practices.” Working with the practices recommends itself as a way of approaching the canon’s place in culture, and at the same time seems to offer a glimpse, a preview, of what that place is, since the canon itself – like criticism – belongs to the world of practices. The abstract and the disconnected show up in the usage to be examined and also constitute a temptation for the theorist to turn away from cultural representations on the grounds that they are “subjective” or ephemeral. To say, then, that these representations and the practices in which they are embodied are not definitive is not to dismiss them; it is, rather, to invite the kind of analysis that will disclose their problematic core, for which we can understand the representations as intended solutions.

The Canon as a Course of Action
The problem of the canon is the nexus of the ancestral and the authoritative. “Tradition” suggests inheritance but no required relation to it, whereas “the canon” suggests something that not only precedes us but also requires submission to its authority. As opposed to tradition, the canon says that to do this is not just to do what has always been done, but to do what it is good to do. The canon appears in the very monuments it sanctifies, the “classics,” from which we learn what is canonical. To learn what is canonical is to disclose for reflection and development the culture’s commitments to particular notions of excellence.

Yet the work is not the canon. If it were, then what is good and required of us would become available simply by reading the classics or looking at the old masters. Though he dismisses the idea of teaching the Great Books for what I regard as the wrong reasons, Alasdair MacIntyre is surely right to observe that such a course is more often “a tour through a museum of texts” than a “reintroduction to the culture of past traditions” (386). What would justify and give life to a course in the Great Books would be a recognition that the canon is not the text but the understanding and interpretation of the text, which make it canonical and define its place in the life and sustenance of the culture. In this sense a canon comes to life in the reflective work of understanding and interpretation: it cannot be a formula or a product, to be repeated or consumed. Hence if we are to look at the cultural manifestations and representations through which the canon lives, we must look not only at the classics and the old masters but also at what is thought to sustain and embody itself in them; and, since the canonical work cannot be isolated from the currents of contemporary re-evaluation, but finds yet another image within them, such images as this re-evaluation produces will also constitute part of the phenomenon. In response to MacIntyre, then, one might want to say that the problem is not to reintroduce the reader to “the culture of past traditions” but to illuminate contemporary life with the spark generated by its collision with the canonical works.

The Contemporary and the Philistine
Two polar attitudes towards the canon, which find frequent cultural expression, will be called here the contemporary and the philistine. The contemporary, as I shall develop it, is an attitude whose speech is sounded solely in immediacy, in presence, what the contemporary self would call the new. Yet this notion of immediacy is an artful construction, for the contemporary will acknowledge as new and immediate only what turns its back on history and canon and will deny the accent of the contemporary to whatever manifestations of the canon or influences of history also surface in the present.

Those who adopt the contemporary attitude shelter their judgment and editing under the cloak of self-proclaimed expressiveness and spontaneity, which they owe to their virgin birth (they were never parented by the tradition); so protected, they claim to differentiate the contemporary from the “ideology” and “metaphysics” of both the canon and its institutional friends, for which the museum stands representative.

The other pole is represented by those of whom Nietzsche gave a vituperative account as philistines: not those who are ignorant of or indifferent to the canon, but those who congratulate themselves on their cosy relationship with it. Speaking of such men as Goethe, whom the philistine identifies with the canon, Nietzsche writes:

but what view does our philistine culture take of these seekers? It assumes them to be finders, not seekers, and it seems to forget that it was as seekers that they regarded themselves. “We have our culture, do we not,” they say, “for we have our classics, do we not? Not only have the foundations been laid, but the building itself stands already upon them – we ourselves are this building.” And the philistine raises his hand to his own brow. (9)

The philistine is shocked by the contemporary, for the latter simply seems to deny quality, not only to the canonical works themselves (John Cage: “Beethoven is shit”) but also to the cultural identity and social standing that a love of the classics provides the philistine. The philistine respects what Nietzsche calls “those feeble and egoistic sensations promised by our concert halls and theatres to anyone who can pay for them,” and mistakes their consumption for a sign of connoisseurship and sensitivity (9). For the philistine it would be a waste of time and spirit to interest oneself in anything less than an acclaimed ‘masterpiece’,” for “seeking” calls for a kind of work the philistine is not prepared to do and a kind of judgment she or he is not prepared to make. Indeed, what is so admirable about the canon, thus understood, is that it does not call for work; hence for the philistine too, as for the contemporary, immediacy is a criterion of what is good.

The two prevailing responses to the canon, one that rejects it categorically and one that accepts it with equally charged complacency, have in common that they do not engage the canon, they do not treat the canon as valuable speech that needs an engaged response. Neither the philistine nor the contemporary is interested in what it is to meet the standard; each treats the canon’s manifestation in cultural artifacts as what matters, either to affiliate with or to oppose. Thus, while one embraces the new because it is new as readily as the other rejects it for the same reason, neither sees that the genuinely new always seeks to be understood through its own desire for standards, a desire that inevitably calls for a working out of its relationship to a tradition and a canon. What is so far missing, then, is a concern with cultivating the work that both creates and sustains the canon, that promises the new and makes as space for it when it appears. As Nietzsche puts it, there is only one way to honour “the metaphysics” and that is “to go on seeking in their spirit and with their courage and not to grow weary of doing so” (9). If courage and spirit must inform the discourse in which we work out a relationship to tradition, as we seek to avoid the extremes of the contemporary and the philistine, we need to speak of the problem of cultivation.

The Problem of Cultivation
When the canon is thought of as representing the tyranny of the ancestors, it can be characterized, like the ancestors themselves, as dead and hence subject to dismissal and oblivion. There is nothing essential, then, about either the ancestors or, of course, contemporaries who are simply the contingent products of history, of then and now (of some “then” and some “now”), and there can be nothing essential about any form of connectedness held to obtain between them. From such a point of view, any claims by which the present links the ancestral with excellence and gives it canonical status, since these claims are not necessary (i.e., are not externally imposed but represent constructive work), can only be understood as ideological. What comes first is the interests of the living, and the contemporary does indeed seek to build its platform on the tomb of the canon. From its point of view, respect for the ancestral, the traditional, and the canonical can only be understood in terms of some contemporary interest, and hence its question becomes: What interest? Since interest itself is comprehended as divisive, this question translates into the further question: What particular (and divisive) contemporary interest is served by the adoption of a pious view towards what is dead?

Much of the so-called “new art history” in fact takes this line. At its best it exhibits kinship with Barthes’s Mythologies; it seeks to uncover the sleight-of-hand that produces the historical as the natural, and hence alerts us to the artifice in art history. Its failure lies in its inability to provide any alternative to ideology as grounding interpretation, while at the same time making its own implicit claim to stand on a high ground above the swamp of bourgeois delusion. Were it to acknowledge the self-referring potential of its demystifying procedures, it would necessarily have to ground its own account of interested art history in interest – necessarily, because, in its own interpretive vocabulary, interest is the only motivation there is. That it does not follow the argument through is due, of course, to its belief in the self-signifying nature of what is immediate, as though what is of the moment could be exempt from the possibility of an interpretation frankly rooted in conviction and commitment. But once the requirement of hermeneutic work is admitted, that is, once we recognize that the designation “immediate” is itself the exercise of a particular understanding and not a simple act of perception (to be contrasted with the ideological distortions of predecessors), the door is open to an alternative way of thinking about the connectedness of the contemporary and the ancestral. The present, liberated from the illusion of being self-interpreting, is – like the past – in need of understanding; and understanding is itself to be understood as action for which the agent is responsible and of which he can be asked to give an account. Only by accepting this hermeneutic responsibility can we rescue the present from the imposition of a bleak narrative in which it has no significance other than its contemporariness, its sheer existence as a moment in the passage of time.

It is important to insist that such a narrative is authored : the contemporary is committed to an intervention at the very moment it condemns the interventionist character of the canon. If the present is to be rescued from this nihilistic impulse to treat its provenance as either sheerly contingent, or else ideological, the question will not be whether intervention is permissible – it is inevitable – but how such intervention relates itself to the past on the basis of some conception of excellence. Cultivation is the action of one who recognizes the possibilities of what is given or inherited and at the same time takes the risk of developing something worthwhile from them. At the most literal level this suggests that the canonical works be acknowledged as the inheritance (contrary to the desire of the contemporary), but by no means be understood to speak for themselves (as the philistine would prefer). More broadly, cultivation speaks of a commitment to the production of the best that can be wrested from the materials at hand, which in turn rests upon our willingness and ability to treat the tradition imaginatively. Indeed, our own social formation is best understood as the result of ancestral attempts to live imaginatively with the canon, and the freedom to cultivate (i.e., to theorize) is the best guarantee that the canon is always open to review and renewal. Cultivation paradoxically encourages a friendlier attitude towards the contemporary; for since it refuses to obliterate the past or to reduce the present to the merely occurrent, it is able to orient the contemporary as a temporal phenomenon susceptible to interpretation and persuasion. The canon, after all, is full of instances of “rupture,” of voices that aimed to speak from a place outside of history.

The Place of Canon in the Life of the Student and the Life of the Apprentice

Coming to Our Senses, a report sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts ( NEA) on the proper concerns of curricula in art education, says:

Existing standardized materials [should] be reevaluated constantly in order to meet the needs of particular student populations. Materials should be changed or amplified if they do not illuminate the students’ life experiences or if they condition students to a narrow definition of acceptable forms of art.

There is plenty to ponder in these few lines: an acknowledgment of the canon, albeit oblique, in the reference to works that are standard or standardized; at the same time, a resistance to the canon, on behalf of student interests; a display of the belief that education must make a place for respecting particularity, and, finally, the assertion of a connection between works and the illumination of a life (perhaps here understood as “life-style”).

We could generate numerous seminal questions on the basis of what the NEA report treats as foundational for any discussion of the place of a canon in educating the contemporary. I shall limit myself here to the issue which this passage makes central; the need and the difficulty of reconciling the authoritative character of the standard with the concurrent need to recognize the claims of particularity. This opens the way for a reconsideration of a dispute between the contemporary and the traditional, namely, how particularity is to be conceived in a fruitful way, so as to make a place for both the authority of the canon and the requirements of the new. The contemporary refuses to accept these as the terms, since it believes the only way to make a place for the new and the particular is to dismiss the tradition and eliminate the canon. In the course of doing this, the contemporary theorizes about tradition and canon within a particular understanding of history: history, it supposes, resembles nothing so much as the noxious residues and waste products of life hitherto, a slag-heap that the contemporary must dispose of so as to provide fresh air and a clean slate for the living. This work of purification is retarded by the persistence of ideologies that cling to history and are employed to salvage and promote self-centred interests. In effect, the contemporary refuses any suggestion of cultivation, any proposal that the tradition is part of our substance – a refusal that in some lights appears to be a form of self-hatred.

The issue of the “loss of problems,” which concerns both the theorist and the critic who works within the culture’s arenas, is one way of addressing the problem of particularity, that is, the difficulty of finding a place for the standard, which appears to be external and oppressive when one champions the present in all of its novelty and idiosyncratic detail. This is the NEA’s problem and I have tried to show that it can be related to the larger problem of the contemporary, with its desire to make the immediate rule over – and overrule – the place of tradition. The opposite, which also, if less obviously, results in a “loss of problems,” can be located in the work of Alan Bloom, a well-known enemy of both the Stanford students and the stance of the NEA.

Bloom makes us aware of his difficulty with the particular when he speaks peremptorily of the triviality of culture: “Differences of dress or food,” he tells us, speaking of the particularities which are thought to make cultures distinctive, “are either of no interest or are secondary expressions of deeper beliefs” (192). Although differences of dress and food may be superficial cultural expressions that mask the absence of any sustaining “deeper” cultural life, to speak as Bloom does is surely to speak abstractly. Dress and food are not only amongst the terms on which daily life is lived; they are also manifestations of the enjoyable cultivation of particularity. Bloom, committed to the standard, finds it difficult to make room for the appearances, the daily attachments through which a culture shows what it is. Bloom does not want to begin with these; like the philosopher who ignores Wittgenstein’s warning, he aims to “go straight to the second stage without going through the first one.” The point is, though, that what we see looks different when one circumvents the first stage than it does when one begins with the images, the representations, and the practices. This is why we have to say that when one tries to make the second stage the first (and only) stage, the problems are lost: the problems could be said to reside in the space between usage and dictum; the very notion of a “second stage” is an attempt to keep alive what is important in the representations that constitute our very lives, even as we attempt to go beyond them.

If the NEA cannot commit itself to the seriousness of the canon, Bloom is unwilling to allow that the canon will only appear insofar as it influences and manifests itself in its cultural representations.

Another account of the place of standards in education, which presents an enduring alternative representation of the place of the canon in the life of culture, is given by MacIntyre, who argues that, far from being abstract or removed from the realm of action, excellence for the Greeks is precisely understood “in terms of the standards established within and for some specific form of systematic activity,” for example, seamanship, athletics, poetry, rhetoric, and architecture (30). MacIntyre goes on to say:

The concept of the best, of the perfected, provides each of these forms of activity with the good toward which those who participate in it move. What directs them toward that goal is both the history of successive attempts to transcend the limitations of the best achievement in that particular area so far and the acknowledgement of certain achievements as permanently defining aspects of the perfection toward which that particular form of activity is directed. Those achievements are assigned a canonical status within the practice of each type of activity. Learning what they have to teach is central to apprenticeship in each particular form of activity. (31).

MacIntyre provides some resources with which to formulate a response to the NEA and to Bloom. His term “apprentice” offers an alternative conception of the student. Students, it seems, are conceived of above all as entities with biographies. When the NEA speaks of the “needs of particular student populations,” it recognizes that all are not alike, that the standardizing urge of the teacher, who speaks on behalf of discipline and the canon, must be flexible in confronting differences between students. The teacher who wishes to be influential must respect, and learn how to speak to, particular biographical differences. The notion of the apprentice, on the other hand, is silent about such differences in formulating the learner, for qua apprentice she or he is one whose particular life will be filled with the quotidian requirements of the techne: the apprentice’s biography will be inseparable from involvement with the daily life of the techne.

The NEA’s version of the student will postulate something entirely different, since it begins with the notion that the students differ from one another, as well as from their teachers, not only in aptitude and biography but also, and as a consequence of biography, in interests. In this version MacIntyre’s “activity” appears only as one possible interest among many, and hence required to take its place in the psychic economy of the student; there are limits to what and how materials from the past can concern the student. When the NEA argues that “materials should be changed or amplified if they do not illuminate the students’ life experiences,” they patently do not mean his experiences with techne; the claim is, rather, that techne should establish some relationship of “relevance” to the life of a student who pursues a portfolio of miscellaneous interests. Interests are protected from modification in this version of education, and it is standards that need to be modified so that interests may be preserved.

If consumption – as we may call this view of education – is oriented to a public world constituted by the distribution and expression of interests, and in the consumer’s rights to such expression, then the student is by no means in the position of the apprentice, who is open to the requirements of the canon, but appears as one who not only knows what she or he wants but also has a claim upon the satisfaction of those wants. Both student and apprentice establish a place for the local and the particular in their disciplinary discourse. For the apprentice it stands as what she or he cultivates so that it shall appear in the public world in the form of a culture to be appreciated and enjoyed, and hence the cultivation itself is to be enjoyed (while nonetheless constituting discipline). The apprentice, as he works to extend the boundaries of his domain, counts on the understanding of those who share an appreciation of the achievements of the techne. What is local and particular for the student, by contrast, is now no more than the contingent set of interests that insist upon expression, so that culture consists pre-eminently of the uneasy alliances and conflicts that interests always engender. In such a world, cultivation can only nourish the interests themselves and monitor their possibilities of appearing.

John Porter once wrote that “cultures are less and less relevant for the post-industrial society because they emphasize yesterday rather than tomorrow.” Porter seems to view ethnic enclaves as museums fostering what is irrelevant, if not dangerous, to the contemporary world. One could also see the museum as an institution whose value is precisely that it protects objects from the onslaught of judgment that is merely contemporary and permits them to enter a future in which the contemporary itself will have joined the past. And the contemporary always does join the past, of course. Thus, when Crimp speaks approvingly of Foucault’s desire to replace “those unities of humanist historical thought such as tradition influence (and) development ….. with concepts like discontinuity (and) rupture” (45), it is as though he believes that such “concepts” can protect Foucault from the conversational response of his successors, who otherwise might be expected to situate Foucault within the tradition as it unfolds and flows past him. Foucault’s influence will doubtless continue, but not – as Crimp believes – on Foucault’s own terms.

The contemporary, as represented for the moment by Crimp and his urge to make Foucault the spokesperson for a rejection of tradition, wants to conceive of the future as a tabula rasa. But there is a paradox here. When culture is regarded as at best arbitrary and at worst ideological, the contemporary believes that it can make its own future, and hence while the past is the sort of impediment that Descartes and the Enlightenment declared it to be, the future is a place were the a historical present can inscribe itself. The paradox is that a present that understands itself as self-originating can see no more in the future than a fulfillment of what is already known and immediate. Thus the contemporary, disposing of the tradition in favour of the “new,” dreads a future that contains surprises and that is not an extrapolation of some final version of the “new” authored by the present. The appearance of the surprising can only be a sign of the failure of control. The contemporary will take the future only on its own terms, then, these terms are: tradition will be discarded, history will begin again, and the contemporary will realize its hegemonic cream.

Friends of the canon will see the future differently. Insofar as culture understands itself through its cultivation of tradition, its approach to the future can be relaxed and confident. The tradition itself is an assurance that the surprising will always appear, and the confidence it instills renders control of the unborn (in any case impossible) unnecessary. Thus while it is sometimes said that such an attachment to tradition is conservative in the worst sense – that is, it fears and prevents change – it can be argued to the contrary that the strength of the tradition permits an enjoyable expectation of change which is neither planned nor knowable in advance of its occurrence. The present can submit itself to being moved by such change. Hence continuity comes to signify not the perpetuation of sameness but a place for a difference that is intelligible and therefore welcome.

The contemporary has trouble with the canon, finally, because the canon speaks of two things that the contemporary, attached to a particular version of democracy, can find no place for. The canon speaks, obviously, for judgments of better and worse, for the possibility of hierarchical ordering, since excellence must make reference to standards that inhere in a domain rather than simply reflect interests. Beyond that, the canon speaks for the recognition of limits, whereas the contemporary is committed to the belief that “spontaneity” and “self-expression” manifest limitlessness. Forms, genres, traditions, standards – these all betray a commitment to limits, while democracy, as the contemporary understands it, refuses to know such bounds on behalf of freedom and creativity. Indeed, creativity comes to be defined as just that which is spontaneous and expressive of the self, as through the moment and the self were themselves outside tradition, outside influence, outside limits.

The spontaneous and the expressive share with such notions as relevance and interest a refusal to be dialectical rather than foundational, and it is on these grounds that the canon, which is by nature discursive, challenges the contemporary. To say that the canon is discursive is to say that the canon, though it has a history, is always a discourse of the present, and hence is not to be identified with the philistine insistence on the fixed and unreflective. Both philistine and contemporary appear to hate reasoned conversation. The canon’s concern with “the history of successive attempts to transcend the limitations of the best achievement” in its domain of action, in MacIntyre’s words, affiliates it with a public world that needs to be mindful first of the present, in which it lives, secondly of the past, from which it draws life, and lastly of the future, where it aims to transcend limits that are enjoyable rather than painful to acknowledge.

An earlier version of this essay was presented to the Colloquium, “Canon(s) & Culture: Quadrivium to Trivia?,” sponsored by the Liberal Arts College of Concordia University, 4-5 November 1988. My arguments here have been influenced by Alan Blum and Peter McHugh, Self-Reflection in the Arts and Sciences. I am grateful to Adrian Marriage for a thoughtful response to an earlier version.

Originally published in Queens’ Quarterly (236-249)


1. The action of the Stanford students was reported in the New York Times, 19 January 1988; Crimp’s remarks on Rauschenberg and art are to be found in Crimp 43-56; Donato’s argument is contained in Donato 213-38.

2. The position I take in this essay is that the canon is a complex cultural representation that needs to be unpacked rather than defined. Even so, there are contexts in which the canon is active that go beyond my present scope. Canonicity is a focus for various contemporary discourses. It is obliquely the target of Nadine Gordimer’s argument that authors can only be read by “readers who share terms of reference,” with its implication that “a vast number of readers … do not share [such concerns] with us in grossly unequal societies” (59). Presumably these hypothetical readers also fail to share Gordimer’s own “terms of reference,” which include a concern for the limits of readership. But what follows from this? That we should restrict our reading, writing, and thinking according to the standards or capacities of the most remote or the least literate? Surely not. Gayatry Spivak argues for the oppressive nature of canons, particularly with respect to the education of children from “ethnic groups,” and thus seems to commit herself to the position that at least some traditions are worth preserving, though not, apparently, those associated with “the canon.” Spivak recommends the inclusion of a Mayan epic in American education, and while one can hardly object to this at some level, it is nevertheless obvious that, like the Stanford students, she speaks from the viewpoint of contemporary western eclecticism. (Spivak’s opinions are to be found in “Forum.”) One might argue that the Stanford students are not in fact repudiating “the canon” so much as the western canon. I do not think this is true: though they called for the inclusion of eastern works, they are not, for example, conducting their protest under the auspices of eastern tradition – they did not learn their chant from the Buddha. It is surely canonicity that they reject, i.e., the assumption that ancestral works have a claim on us which must be reckoned with. E.J. Hirsch Jr. is vexed that American students share little common culture, but this does not lead him to argue for the canon. Instead he is ready to settle for lists of cultural “items,” and goes so far as to say: “Frankly, I don’t care what they come up with. What I want is consensus” (“Forum” 51). Feminists, too, have found fault with the canon as, for example, a mask for patriarchal nostalgia (Doane and Hodges). Clearly, then, the question of the canon is the focal point of a number of discourses that space considerations preclude from detailed consideration here.

3. In thinking about the problem that representations and practices conceal I have been influenced by Alan Blum.

4. This point is elaborated in Turner.

5. Nietzsche is more apt for my purposes than Matthew Arnold, whose philistine is the enemy of the canon equally with the new.

6. See, for example, the militant collection edited by Rees and Borzello.

7. For a good account of the place of narrative in human life see Arendt, especially 181 ff.

8. Cited by Lipman, 10. For the sake of brevity I shall refer to this enunciation of a viewpoint as the NEA position, but with no intent to characterize the NEA’s actions and policies as a whole.

9. James S. Fishkin tells of an “American mathematician doing graduate work at Cambridge,” of whom he says “he tries to suppress entirely the process of giving reasons…his goal is a kind of unreasoned spontaneity” (45). This is the kind of thing I have in mind – a reasoning that abrogates reason.


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