Explain the term ‘exploding the canonˊ. Critically analyse what the term means.
In fiction and literature, the canon is the collection of works considered representative of a period or genre. The collected works of William Shakespeare, for instance, would be part of the canon of western literature, since his writing and writing style has had a significant impact on nearly all aspects of that genre.
The Canon Changes
The accepted body of work that comprises the canon of Western literature has evolved and changed over the years, however. For centuries, it was populated primarily by white men and was not representative of Western culture as a whole.
Over time, some works become less pertinent in the canon as they’re replaced by more modern counterparts. For instance, the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer are still considered significant. But lesser-known writers of the past, such as William Blake and Matthew Arnold, have faded in relevance, replaced by modern counterparts like Ernest Hemingway (“The Sun Also Rises”), Langston Hughes (“Harlem”), and Toni Morrison (“Beloved”).
Origin of the Word ‘Canon’
In religious terms, a canon is a standard of judgment or a text containing those views, such as the Bible or the Koran. Sometimes within religious traditions, as views evolve or change, some formerly canonical texts become “apocryphal,” meaning outside the realm of what’s considered representative. Some apocryphal works are never granted formal acceptance but are influential nevertheless.
An example of an apocryphal text in Christianity would be the Gospel of Mary Magdelene. This is a highly controversial text not widely recognized in the Church — but it is believed to be the words of one of Jesus’ closest companions.
Cultural Significance and Canon Literature
People of color have become more prominent parts of the canon as a past emphasis on Eurocentrism has waned. For example, contemporary writers such as Louise Erdrich (“The Round House), Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”), and James Baldwin (“Notes of a Native Son”) are representative of entire subgenres of African-American, Asian-American, and Indigenous styles of writing.
Some writers and artists’ work is not as well appreciated in their time, and their writing becomes part of the canon many years after their deaths. This is especially true of female writers such as Charlotte Bronte (“Jane Eyre”), Jane Austen (“Pride and Prejudice”), Emily Dickinson (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death”), and Virginia Woolf (“A Room of One’s Own”).
The Evolving Canon Literary Definition
Many teachers and schools rely on the canon to teach students about literature, so it’s crucial that it includes works that are representative of society, providing a snapshot of a given point in time. This, of course, has led to many disputes among literary scholars over the years. Arguments about which works are worthy of further examination and study are likely to continue as cultural norms and mores shift and evolve.
By studying canonical works of the past, we gain a new appreciation for them from a modern perspective. For instance, Walt Whitman’s epic poem “Song of Myself” is now viewed as a seminal work of gay literature. During Whitman’s lifetime, it was not necessarily read within that context.
The term literary canon is a technical term used to describe a set of texts that serve as a recognized standard of stylistic quality, cultural or social significance, and intellectual value. The literary canon is not determined as much as it is adopted by pervasive usage in university and graduate classrooms, as well as reference and citation in academic journals, and it is to a degree based on the influence of curriculum publishers and testing organizations.
Because people in a society are most likely to be exposed to the accepted canon of literature, these texts also inform both a generally accepted worldview and determine the ”imaginative boundaries” of how that society tends to think. For example, because Aristotle’s works were considered part of the literary canon for the last several centuries, western societies have tended to approach questions of warfare and economics through an Aristotelian lens. Essentially, the voice a society hears most often is most likely to carry an outside influence on the people within that society, both in how they think and how they live.
The fact that the canon is determined through usage and collaboration makes it both highly adaptable and highly controversial at the same time. In recent years, a push to change what authors and works should be considered canon or canonical has driven a great deal of debate within the western literary world.
Canonical Texts in Literature
The English word canon stems from an older, Greek term (transliterated as Kanon). Originally, this Greek term referred to a ”standard” or a ”measuring rod” against which something was measured to ensure that it was set correctly. The physical, engineering use of this term eventually took on a metaphoric meaning. Now, the term canon is used to mean an agreed-upon standard against which other, most frequently intellectual, works are measured for quality, long-term value, and influence.
Though different for eastern cultures, the countries and people groups — especially within Europe — of western society have worked within the boundaries of a fairly consistent literary canon for the last 1000 – 1500 years. In general, the western canon has prioritized the voices of the dominant Greco-Roman philosophers, the poets and novelists of France and Britain, and, in more recent centuries, the sociological/philosophical voices of Germany. It is equally true that American novelists, in particular, have found their way into the generally accepted canon during the late 19th and throughout the 20th centuries.
As many have noted, the generally accepted western canon is currently dominated by men, and, for much of the last several centuries, white, Christian men. However, during the mid- to late 20th century, literary departments, professors, and publishers began to question the validity of a canon that did not represent minority and/or female voices, leading to a debate over expanding the literary standard.
In recent years, Classics Programs at major universities and especially at Ivy League institutions in the United States, or Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, have been engaged in a debate about which texts and writers should be accepted as classics or as part of the literary canon. Classics programs have long prioritized the white, masculine, most frequently upper-class voices of Greece and Rome. However, in contrast, contemporary scholars like Dan-el Padilla Peralta (Ph.D.) of Princeton University have instead been arguing for a broader reconstruction of the classical worldview — a reconstruction that would include minority, slave, and female voices of the time period. The general argument from thinkers like Peralta centers on the idea that a ”classics program” should explore the totality of perspectives that shaped the earliest intellectual foundations of western civilization. Arguments from this perspective hold that if classics programs do not include the marginalized voices and perspectives of the ancient world, students will not truly understand the cultural forces that birthed contemporary western culture. Rather, they will be left only with an in-depth understanding of the racially, socio-economically, and gender-dominant perspectives of the time period.
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