Criticizing Canons

This month was marked by two special moments. The first was on its first day – being the day that it was twenty years ago that I started working at the Free UVu gebouwenniversity (which has called itself VU University for some time). I still remember when I knew I was hired, and called home from the phone booth in the dark grey concrete hall. Now there is no phone booth anymore, and everything has been made lighter. There was no party to celebrate my anniversary, there were no speeches – such things are not very usual at the VU. Nobody knew, except those whom I told, but still it was a special day for me. In those twenty years I have seen many changes at my university, and not only where its buildings are concerned.

For one, the student population changed a lot. When I came to work there, the students were mostly white, and there were more protestants among them than at the other Dutch universities. The days of student protests were long ago, and, as the VU was in a suburb without anything to do but work (or do sport), it had an air of seriousness. Since those days the socker fields have made way to large banks and law firms and hip but expensive bars. Our students nowadays come from all over the world, and have brought new perspectives with them. And, since the long occupation at the other Amsterdam university last year, a more rebellious spirit has also come over the VU. In this sphere happened the second special moment. It was a student-organized meeting, to present a petition which called for more diversity in the courses to the heads of the philosophy department. In all my twenty years at the Free University philosophy students had never done anything like it.

So staff and students gathered to discuss the petition, which argued for diversification of ´the canon´. The organizing students wanted more female philosophers included, the position of the heads of the department was not entirely clear. It seemed they thought that on the one hand there was already quite some representation of female viewpoints in the curriculum, especially where the field of ethics was concerned, but on the other hand that all the ´great (male) thinkers´ should not get any less attention. The discussion that followed made me reflect on the strange phenomenon of a ´canon´, a word so much used in today´s discussions about teaching. History teachers in the Netherlands should teach a national canon, classes in literature are debating who belongs to the canon of writers, and now even philosophers do the same with their own predecessors.

I don´t believe in canons. They are ideological constructions, to my view, and provide no representation of the most important thinkers or writers. I do not subscribe the darwinian-capitalist view that there is a struggle between thinkers, which will result that the best ones, the most excellent or the deepest ones will win and make up the ´canon´. Neither do I adhere to a marxist viewpoint, though, which would hold that a canon will mirror the material power relations, and that, if those are not benefiting the struggle of the working classes, we will consciously have to change it. I do not believe in pure chance, which seems to provide the foundation for the darwinian-capitalist view, nor in changing the course of history for the better by revolutionary acts.

I believe rather in the power of enchantment – that we can see meaning in a certain pattern or structure, and can deconstruct it too. What appears as a canon in this view is nothing but the unstable mirror of the desires of a certain group or society. Desires to be rational for instance, to hold measure, or to be exuberant. To be wise, constrained, or god-like. There is no necessary struggle, no selection of the best. There is a lot of illusion, and what seeking truth should be about is to look at the illusions, turn them around, look at the labels on their backs (´made in Europe´ or ´made in the USA´ for instance), and study what maintenance they need. Do we want to maintain them? Or is it time to change some old pieces for new ones? Reconstruct or deconstruct them. Or get us some other ones which know of themselves that deconstruction is already at work in them, even while they state their importance.

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3 comments
  1. onesis said:

    I think you might qualify as a magical realist Angela. If a piece of writing works its thinking on us, it’s magical, and we should leave it alone. If it doesn’t we should think about deconstructing it. Perhaps even, we might reconstruct it, in the hope that doing so rescues its original magic from oblivion.

    This is of course an alternative reading of the history of philosophy. Rather than seeing Plato and his heirs as ideal realists who wanted to get rid of the entire magical tradition, we see them working within it, enhancing the power of thinking to purify it of the superstition and gross general ignorance that plagues genuine magic.

    Of course when anyone emerges from the cave of general ignorance they are dazzled by the light. Being able to say something about what is seen, requires the magical power of language. When pestered by those who cannot see it, then they too can claim ignorance (as did Socrates). If the words do not enable others to see beyond the confines of the cave, then there is nothing more one can say, until others come with different words, that open the mind to the sky above, and the unlimited horizons of thought.

    • I like your thoughts about this very much, David. Especially the view that belief in philosophy/reason is believing in the stronger kind of magic. Monotheism (Plato was close to its central ideas) is too. Calling on JHWH/God/Allah surpasses any call on spirits/demons, even the devil himself. And calling on reason makes a similar move. Declaring the spirits non-existent even makes them recede into the mists of being. Although they can never be destroyed by it completely.

      Enchantment can be read in different ways though. In my post I mainly wanted to make an appeal for a psycho-analytical approach to the tradition of philosophy (which is also a way of dealing with/doing magic). An approach Derrida, but even more so Fanon took. What does maintaining the canon ask from us? And is it worth it? By maintenance I didn’t mean dusting books, but the social and psychological, and even environmental price we pay by keeping it.

      • onesis said:

        There are a number of different issues arising out of any discussion of a canon, whether that is the official one or not. Nowadays the names of Derrida, along with Lacan, Deleuze, and you also mention Fanon, which brings in the African context, are part of an emerging canon, particularly as I engage with European thinkers, and those from other continents.

        One of the issues is the continuing brush up against the empiricist tradition which appears strong in the USA, along with pragmatism. Here more than ever is a refusal by many empiricists to even engage with the more hermeneutically minded tradition, that does not try to disown the past even as it deals with it critically. The only way I can think of proceeding is to continually hold out the olive branch of offering dialogue, hoping to clarify the very terms the empiricists reject.

        A more pressing issue is those who simply want to dispense with the philosophical tradition altogether. I wonder if psychoanalysis hopes that we will see our philosophical questions as symptoms of some kind of underlying malaise. Perhaps, one might posit Plato or some similar canonical thinker as a Big Other, a father figure against whom we wish to commit patricide, but who in the end we need to come to terms with. If so then psychoanalysis offers a way of dealing with the tradition and at the same time making initiatives of our own that are not tied to some kind of childish rebellion against authority, or an implicit need to please the authority. If so then psychoanalysis remains tied itself to the tradition that stresses the autonomy of the individual.

        Once again I see dialogue as the approach to take. I don’t accept the proposition that philosophy is a malaise and we need help to overcome it. I see it as a genuine disciplining of the mind to stay with a set of questions and continue asking them and exploring possible answers until we are satisfied that we can go no further. And this sort of quest is not one taken by individuals acting alone but occurs in the context of a community of inquiry, of which the numbers of people we can talk to at any one time is highly limited by time and space and literacy. Of course the internet opens up vastly more possibilities.

        Nowadays the cultural context of these exchanges requires increased sensitivity. It is very helpful when someone offers one a book that helps explain their own cultural context. I was offered such a book by a spokesperson for some Australian Aboriginals. It is called My Dark Brother, written by a Russian anthropologist Elena Govor, which follows the story of an immigrant Russian family, the Illins, one of whom, Leandro, married an Aboriginal woman in far northern Australia in the early part of the 20th century, and acted as a protector of her children in the face of a hostile colonising European culture. This book then speaks to me of the perspective that surviving Aboriginals have, still today, as they are surrounded by the culture which is still as insidiously colonialist as ever.

        The coming into intersection of two stories such as these, on the one hand the Aboriginal story, and in my case the philosophical one of questioning the cultural basis of colonialism, then works a kind of magic in my mind because now I am no longer a slave to my own unconscious prejudices. I can see myself being framed as a colonialist white person, unless I can do something that demonstrates a similar protective response such as demonstrated by Leandro Illins.

        The question then becomes an ethical one: What ought I to do? How ought I to respond? Finding an appropriate response takes considerable time. It also means getting involved in situations that are fraught with political tensions. (Here time and space prevents me from going further with this example).

        My point in summary is this. The canon (whatever it is) on its own is insufficient. Psychoanalysis might work for some, but a real world beckons, one in which cultural diversity means coming to terms with the other, and the face of the other, to bring Levinas right into the picture. Philosophy remains relevant only insofar as it is possible to think of the engagement it summons us into as an ethical one.

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