Tuesday, 28 January 2014

22. The Canon

As an undergraduate student, I remember spending the majority of my first year mastering literary theory as part of a module which offered "striking 'moves' that people can use in thinking about other topics [within literature]"*. Our studies explored the ideologies and and teachings of key thinkers such as Derrida or Rousseau or Saussure. Compulsory modules which followed included an analysis of the "novel" - an examination of how the novel came to be and the qualities necessary to form one.

Such compulsory modules intrigued me. I wanted to learn the "moves" necessary to navigate my chosen degree, and if I understood the rules and styles and thoughts I could one day write with equal flair. Just as a singing quartet staggers the lines of its song for musical effect, so the laws of the literary canon cause for a subtle repetition or echoing from work which follows its leader.

The same modules caused other students to question the standard however; I particularly remember witnessing the fury of one of my classmates at being awarded a C for daring to marry the ballet-like concepts of the English canonic writers with the street-like musings of hip-hop artists from across the pond.

But who decides who makes up the moves?

Why are there "canons" in an arts and humanities subject such as literature? What makes something "right" or "wrong" in an area where the very notion that there can by logic be only one right answer is its precise antithesis? Do the rules of English Literature make for a zero-tolerance policy on freestyle?

*Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: 4th Edn.) p. 7

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