Saturday, 4 August 2012

Jane Marcus on the non-canonical


 
I don't currently have the internet at home, so I'm popping up scheduled posts when I can - so this is something to ponder on over the weekend.  The painting is Woman Reading in an Interior (1915) by Vaclav Vytlacil, which isn't remotely related to the quotation I wanted to post (except that both intrigue me.)  It's a potentially controversial, but interesting, excerpt I read by Jane Marcus (feminist theorist)...

I would caution against fundamentalist feminists’ over-literal reading of texts without the radical unsettling processes which contemporary theory has provided to keep us honest intellectually.  I am nervous about producing a generation of students who have never been to the library, who practice refined techniques on a body of texts already chosen by their professors – not the canon, but the highly-privileged “non-canonical.”  I do not want to read another paper on “The Yellow Wallpaper” or The Awakening. […] Since aesthetic value is not at issue here, other sets of lost texts might enliven our debates and bring about a dialogue which is not about mastery or decoding of texts but about reading and writing together.
Thoughts?  I think it lends support to feminist reprinting by Virago and Persephone, and also cautions against non-canonical texts becoming canonical by virtue of their accepted 'outsider'-ness...

10 comments:

  1. Wot? Jane Marcus should learn to write plain English before she starts dictating to other people.

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  2. I agree about the tortured syntax. Re non-canonicalness, once any text is formally adopted (by one person, dept, university or state system) into teaching for more than a couple of years, and accrues a set of readings that get established, updated, set in stone, it becomes part of a particular canon. Teaching 'outsider' texts as one-offs is fresh and fun and risky, but the results of the teahcing need to be incorporated into how we teach other things too. Not sure this takes us anywhere helpful. But there's nothing wrong with teaching an outsider text if it brings out new ideas that can be applied to other texts as well as itself. The point of a canon is to share ideas and see connections across a literature, I think. Kate

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    1. I agree with everything, Kate, until the last line - well, I don't *disagree* with your sentence about the point of a canon, but I will need to think on't! I've never really thought what the point of a canon is - or even whether it has one.

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  3. I agree with the sentiment, in simple terms - read other feminist writers too. However, there is something to be said about texts chosen by professors - canonical or non-canonical. These texts have been chosen over time, again and again, because they were path breaking in terms of their language, philosophy or representation of an era. I have read a lot of books which fall outside the "chosen" texts and though they "bring about a dialogue" they don't necessarily sustain the conversation.

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    1. I like your last sentence, very interesting! I think some texts are important in the conversation as themselves, and some are important just for shaking up the conversation.

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  4. I agree that the non-canonical often becomes assimilated into the canon with repeated teaching. If the set texts are viewed as a springboard to a wider literary world, professors can 'signpost'other texts.

    If the academic world sets up its literary hoops, then you can't blame the students for jumping through them.

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    1. True! Oxford's course is a bit different from most, in that the students pick whatever and whoever they want to read, rather than following a course list. I've not had experience of a set reading list, really.

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  5. As a non-academic in Eng Lit, surely - if the Canon represents the core of the syllabus, a good student/prof should always read around it in addition?

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    1. definitely! I think the problem is those texts which seem like their outside the canon, but have thus worked their way into it...

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