May 23, 2006

Notes on Canonicity

Harris, Wendell V. ‘Canonicity’. PMLA. Vol. 106, No 1 (January 1991), 110 –121.

Harris opens his paper controversially:

The canonical facts about the canons of English and American literature, are, first, that there are no canons and never have been; second, that there have necessarily always been canons; and third, that canons are made up of readings not of disembodied texts. What is contradictory in that statement results from play on different connotations of the word canon – a critical strategy that is constantly, though often more subtly, in use. As with many another critical term, the fisrt step in understanding canon is to unpack its meanings. (110)

Harris reminds us that ‘canon’ comes from the Greek kanon meaning rule or measure. Harris notes that the idea of measuring, of providing norms has clung to the word canon as a term that refers to selection, but he is adamant that ‘the criteria for selecting literary texts are not derived from authority but from chosen functions’. (110) The use of the word canon is traced from the Bible to ‘classical’ texts and Romanticism. Harris seems to be arguing that it is not the term ‘canon’ that is at fault but our use of it, as he explains that ‘catalogs [sic] identifying especially valuable works not only varied considerably, they did not fence others out’. (111)

Harris objects to the colouring of literary theory by Biblical canonical authority. He quotes Frank Kermode and criticises his belief that universities hold absolute control over canons.

Under the heading ‘A Multiplicity of Canons and Pressures on Them’, Harris cites Fowler who suggested six kind of literary canons:
•the potential canon (all of literature);
•the accessible canon (that part of the potential canon that is available);
•selective canons (anthologies, syllabi etc.);
•official canons (blending of the lists above);
•personal canons (the choices of individual readers);
•and critical canons (for those texts repeatedly treated in articles or books).

Harris demands further distinctions and he sees problems with the canons outlined above:
•the potential canon relies on one’s ‘political allegiances’;
•the accessible canon is inclusive ‘only fro one location’ and ‘varies with the sophistication of each reader’;
•personal canons are made up of ‘indeterminate interaction’;
•and official and critical canons are ‘precipitated out of the mass of selective canons’. (112)

Harris thinks that, ‘the only canons produced by systematic choice are the innumerable and heterogeneous selective ones’. (112) He also notes that the Biblical authoritative canon does not fit in these categories. In addition he argues that there should be a pedagogical canon, a diachronic canon and a nonce canon. (He leaves the question of popular canons open.) In relation to the diachronic canon, Harris notes that although it is partly a ‘canonical haven’ for others it is simply ‘canonical limbo’. (113)

Looking at a historical perspective, Harris notes that canons were hardly used until the eighteenth century, although Renaissance humanists like Erasmus demanded a kind of universal knowledge. Later formulations of canons were a necessary part of university teaching. Thinking about modern anthologies, Harris is adamant that editorship always problematises the quest for a Fowlerian potential canon.

Focusing on selective canons and the problem of criteria, Harris criticises New Criticism and the ‘claim that poetry has no propositional meaning’. (115) For Harris, this point fences itself into a corner, because ‘the ultimate implication of that position is the futility of critical discussion’. (115) Like R.S. Crane who is called on by Harris, the criticism is of ‘the automatic ascription of universal oppositions’ to any text. (115) Like Aiken, Harris draws on Arnold’s line about aspiring to a higher ideal of utterance and thinking, but Harris criticises Arnold suggesting that his intentions were bound up with class and that he makes an assumption that a hierarchy is necessary for society to function.

Harris now considers ‘the functions a particular selection was apparently intended to perform’. (115) He cites Barbara Hernstein Smith and her view that selctions are symptomatic of the selector’s needs and desires at that time. Arnold is seen as one such critic and Harris relates Arnold’s warnings against personal or historical estimates of texts and calls for a ‘real’ estimate. Yet in doing so, Harris recognises that Arnold is ‘looking for hallmarks rather than functions; perhaps he intuitively knew that if he looked for functions he would find all too many for his purposes.’ (115) Harris maintains that there are other functions of canons and proceeds to provide examples:

Providing Models, Ideas and Inspiration
Harris provides examples, such as:
•the Alexandrians who chose texts to display proper grammatical usage;
•Ciceronian and Quintillian canons promoted ‘social virtues’;
•and Golding’s interpretation of Griswold’s Poets and Poetry, the selection of which is based on moral purity.
Harris states: ‘Marxist and feminist arguments are no less appeals to assumed moral values than are Pope’s, Wordsworth’s, or Holme’s’. (115)

Transmitting the Heritage of Thought
This kind of canon provides the means for poets to interpret modern texts with respect to traditional ones. The goal here is for ‘cultural literacy’. (116) Harris quotes Harry Levin who describes knowledge as a dialogue between present–day writers and their ancestors. Harris notes that ‘efforts to overthrow the present canon are often endeavours to expand it, to enlarge our patrimony, and to enrich the “collective memory,” [sic] that is, communal knowledge and awareness’. (116)

Creating Common Frames of Reference
If a body of critics have a similar strategy for interpreting a text, it may be useful to have a canon that can be a reference point. This creates community.

This is where a writer manages to enter a nonce or modern canon ‘by their active espousal of texts or criteria congenial to their own aims’. (116) Harris gives examples such as:
•Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads ;
•Arnold, when he criticises his own ‘Empedocles on Etna’;
•the turn of the Victorian poets to an earlier age of poetry in order to displace Romantic classics (according to Strange);
•and the self–made canon of modernist poets.

Legitimating Theory
Harris uses examples to explain this.
•New Criticism preferred texts that could be used ‘to exhibit meaning as fully as possible’. (116)
•Deconstructionists select ‘texts with almost invisible seams that can be pried open to suggest gaping contradictions’.(116)
•Neo Marxists (Harris includes new historicists) use texts that reveal ‘unsuspected workings of political power’. (!16)
Harris summarises by stating that, ‘the texts each group is most likely to select are those for which it can provide the fullest, most dramatic, and most convincing readings.’ (116)

The issue of historical influences is the factor here. Harris ponders Chaucer and the representation of the pilgrim in fourteenth century England. Rather than thinking about how the world was at the time a certain text was written, critics now interrogate unspoken or unconscious assumptions in texts of a certain historical period.

Harris notes that in the 1890s and at the turn of the century, women and other minorities were better represented. However this slowly declined up to the 1950s according to Harris. He cites Lauter (‘Race and Gender in the Shaping of the American Literary Canon’).

Moving on to think about the reading of canons, Harris notes that canons are texts being read. Harris uses the example of the Christian Church when it read Greek and Roman philosophers in such a way to accommodate its belief system and he uses the example of Catcher in the Rye which can be subject to a number of interpretations. Citing Annette Kolodny, Harris argues that unfamiliarity is the key, since by reading unfamiliar texts and criticism, one ‘defamiliarize[s] texts in the current critical and pedagogical canon’. (117)

Here Harris comes to the point of his essay; that one should not be attacking the idea of a canon. Rather the canon exists as a site of contest. Harris suggests that ‘there will always be competing canons’. (118) This is desirable and necessary.

If the Canon no longer lives, the reason is that it never did; there have been and are only selections with purposes. If anything has been clarified by the last twenty years of critical alarms and excursions, it is the multiplicity of possible purposes. (119)

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