Something I have come to think about is the creation, maintenance and revision of the “canon” in literature. It seems that at least within the Western intellectual tradition for the past 30 years, the canon has been treated as something that itself emerged as a Western or European concept in the first place. Through the unraveling of history, as the narrative goes, it gradually came to be imposed through imperial and colonial means as a normalizing criterion upon the literatures and cultures of every nation. In short, the canon in literature has come to be seen as more or less an instrument for the imposition of a Eurocentric socio-cultural ideology upon the world. Supposedly, a continued socio-cultural subjugation of other peoples, societies and cultures under a Western normativity makes possible an ideological system of power relations.
I find it difficult to believe in such an interpretation of the canon. Its entire argument rests upon an assumption I find impossible to accept in reconciliation with my personal understanding of things as a member of a non-Western culture. The argument that the canon is a Western instrument of ideology and therefore should be discarded or radically revised ignores the fact that the idea of a canon in literature is not of Western origins. Rather, it is a concept with multiple origins, existences and articulations across cultures around the world. For instance, the poetry of Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu have attained canonical status in China. As canonical texts, they are frequently imposed, sometimes rather crudely, upon the minds of unfortunate children as a normative tool for socio-political ends. In fact, many non-Western societies and cultures have come to manifest their own apparatuses of literary and cultural hierarchies through history, more or less independent of Western influences. Many of these hierarchies are similar and perhaps equivalent in their nature to the concept of the canon in the West, and are also probably imbued with a similar and perhaps equivalent amount of normalizing ideological intent.
Granted, canon as an English word has clear European origins, and canon as a concept in Europe and the English-speaking world is probably a distinctively Western construction. The word comes from the Greek “κανών” which means a sort of “standard.” Renaissance reinterpretations of its medieval usage transformed its meaning to designate a kind of socio-cultural conservatory reservoir of important, and perhaps immortal, literary and artistic texts. Otherwise put, they are the “classics,” or the best cultural contents the West has to offer the world.
However, similar if not equivalent concepts and conceptions of cultural classics exist across many different parts of the world. Many of them are not derivative from the Western idea of “the Canon,” but nevertheless exhibit similar functions within their respective societies and cultures. In China, the aforementioned Wang, Li and Du have unquestioned canonical status, much more so than how they are currently received in the West. In the West, despite and perhaps due to the existence of comparative literature and area studies departments, most non-Western classics seem to be confined to the status of academic eccentricities, not to be incorporated within the “Western canon.” In this way, arguing that the canon is a socio-cultural imposition by the West on the “rest” may seem progressive, but might in fact entail unwarranted assumptions. Such a view assumes that the “rest” of the world, being happily distinct from their terrible oppressors, do not have “Canons” of their own capable of rivaling their Western counterparts.
Simply put, a lot of societies and cultures, not only those of the West, have and still have something approximating a “Canon” in literary and cultural respects. While Shakespeare carries the responsibility of torturing school children in the Anglo-sphere, he cannot be condemned for this crime in the Sino-sphere, where the culprit is more likely to be a certain Du Fu, and his companions in crime being Wang Wei and Li Bai. Something similar is probably true in other non-Western parts of our world. Considering this, we can see that there is probably something very problematic in the general intellectual tendency of expediently labeling everything “a Western construct,” thus conveniently getting rid of it without any serious discussions.
Admittedly, the Western canon, as its name indicates, is a Western item, a Western concept and perhaps given certain conditions and circumstances, a Western instrument for Western ideologies. However, the concept of canon as a set of important, if not immortal literary, artistic and otherwise cultural documents, manifesting the best parts of a certain culture, is an idea not at all alien to the non-Western world. It would be reductive and absurd to suggest that we can easily reject or revise a deeply Eurocentric intellectual discourse by crudely rejecting the idea of canon in literature.