Canon Building to Change the Empire

Canon Building to Change the Empire

Photo credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

It was not until coming to university that I was introduced to Toni Morrison. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, captured my attention and led me to buy as many of her books as I could find in book stores. The more I’ve encountered Morrison’s work, the more I’ve fallen in love with the intricacies laced along the pages. Whether through breaking grammar conventions, intensely effective symbolism, or narrative structures, every book leaves me stunned into silence and grasping for more of her words. And I am not the only one. As the world mourns the loss of Toni Morrison so many have come forward and expressed the way her writing has positively influenced their lives.  

Just a few days after her death I was reminded of her influence when I had a conversation in which Toni Morrison’s theory was the only possible response. I spoke with someone who argued that there is a “natural” progression to history and that Western philosophy is a “naturally occurring truth.” And when confronted with the lack of representation for women and people of color in their “naturally occurring truth,” they asked the age-old question: If there’s some truth women and people of color could articulate that the white men couldn’t then can you name the ancient philosophers who were women and people of color? It got me thinking about the pervasive way the word “natural” erases the oppressive histories that stifle the writings that could have proved them wrong. How the word “natural” allows works to be buried or discredited when it comes from certain bodies. It is this question to which Toni Morrison’s theory is the only response: “It only seems that the canon of American literature is ‘naturally’ or ‘inevitably’ ‘white.’ In fact it is studiously so.”

Photo credit: Time Magazine

Photo credit: Time Magazine

The literary canon is supposedly the great works of literature, the classics, like The Odyssey, The Great Gatsby, or anything by Charles Dickens. A quick google search of the classics will reveal a predominantly white male empire studiously constructed from books. Like Toni Morrison points out, the fact that the canon is dominated by white men has little to do with work being of a higher quality and much to do with how quality is controlled and regulated by power. In her theoretical approach to literature, Toni Morrison argues that we “try to recognize, identify, and applaud the fight for and triumph of quality when it is revealed to us and to let go the notion that only the dominant culture or gender can make those judgments, identify that quality, or produce it.” Quality is no longer to be solely determined by Kant or Aristotle; it is not to be determined by the ivory tower. Instead, Morrison’s quality is decentralized from the hands of the white man and expanded to demonstrate the way in which quality is defined and produced by men and women of color. It is this shift in defining quality that will shift what literature is canonized.

“Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense.”

The construction of canon is not insulated from the society in which it exists. Knowledge is not neutral or natural. Instead, “Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate, whatever the terrain, nature, and range (of criticism, of history, of the history of knowledge, of the definition of language, the universality of aesthetic principles, the sociology of art, the humanistic imagination), is the clash of cultures. And all of the interests are vested.” Although not as perceptible from within the dominant culture, which knowledge is considered “worthy” or “quality” builds the myths by which lives are lived. When only white men’s literature is venerated as canon it builds a mold for the cultural “ideal.” The construction of the ideal draws the boundaries of belonging—boundaries that exclude the literature of women and people of color. This exclusion erases the lived experience articulated through literature. It is through the canon that these boundaries are defined and policed in ways that build national identity, that build an empire.

As Morrison points out, the debate about canon is a debate about national identity, about the empire built from knowledge. An easy example for most people to acknowledge is the shift in canon to include works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Jane Austen’s novels. Both authors were barred from the canon because of their status as women, something that delegitimized their literary masterpieces in the eyes of the critics. The quality of the work has not changed. These authors have always produced amazing literature, but the admittance into the canon has changed and with it a new ideology surrounding white womanhood. The empire white men created through the canon that claimed women cannot produce quality art is challenged and reveals itself to be a way to regulate the intellectuality of women. And while other authors have addressed the male part of the white male canon, Morrison dismantles the empire created in the white part of the white male canon. She challenges the empire built around a blindness to the massive influence of African American work and thought, a blindness to the Africanist presence.

Photo credit: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Photo credit: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Often, when confronted with changing the canon to account for this presence, people spout the argument that they’re not against feminism and racial equality, but they do not think that the theory should be so political. While the idea of knowledge and quality as indisputable truths can be comforting, it ignores the crucial aspect of the fact that politics are always present in theory. That the body itself—including that of the white man—is already political by virtue of the societies we live in. Even the idea that knowledge is “objective” is political in that it claims white male objectivity as universal. And, according to Toni Morrison, the studious blindness to race within academic discourse does nothing but hamper interesting conversations and debates. In fact, in her work Playing in the Dark, Morrison responds to the critique that she has a vested interest as a black woman to argue for the importance of reading race, saying, “I will have to risk the accusation because the point is too important: for both black and white American writers, in a wholly racialized society there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of that language is complicated, interesting, and definitive.” She takes an embodied stance within her theory to point out how a “color-blind” theory does nothing to promote the work of literary criticism and theory. Only by accepting the fact that, black or white, we exist as racialized bodies can we understand that all language emerging from this society is steeped in race.

It is in Playing in the Dark that Morrison articulates a theory in which the presence and influence of Africanism on “classical” works like Edgar Allen Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works is an acknowledging of the calculated absence and the work these authors had to do to exclude African American influence from their literature. So, not only does her theory necessitate and validate the inclusion of works that should have already been included in the canon if not for their political and calculated exclusion, but she necessitates a rereading of those works already deemed classics. By understanding the Africanist presence and its influence on major works, there can be interesting readings and new understandings of the already canonized works by white male authors.

As people question the literary canon, what should be included on classroom reading lists, and the nature of knowledge itself, Toni Morrison’s theories will be important to remember. Her legacy is and will be wide-reaching in her arguments for an approach to literature that recognizes the Africanist presence within American Literature and society and a canon that includes the previously excluded. Whether the US and academia will be able to live up to Morrison’s hopes is yet to be determined, but one thing is certain: Toni Morrison is—and I’m sure will long be—considered one of the greatest American authors.

Holly Lackey.jpg

About the author: Holly Lackey is an undergraduate student at Seattle Pacific University studying English literature and social justice and cultural studies. When she is not in class, she enjoys new experiences and finding new places to put on her travel bucket list.

To Lavish a Life of Genius on Black People: On the Intimacy of Losing Toni Morrison

To Lavish a Life of Genius on Black People: On the Intimacy of Losing Toni Morrison

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