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Pedagogy 1.2 (2001) 297-304

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Canons after "Postcolonial Studies"

Salah D. Hassan

Public controversies about the canon of English literature have now largely subsided, and the field of literary study accommodates for the time being works by women, U.S. minorities, non-Europeans, and gays and lesbians. The so-called culture wars of the 1980s left, however, an enduring trace on some texts that broke open the old canon. One of the paradoxical effects of the emergence of a new canon in English literature during the last two decades has been the unarticulated stigmatization of certain works that were at first privileged by attempts to create a more inclusive and egalitarian literary field. This stigmatization operates in a number of ways, but it is always associated with the history of political contestation that adheres to those "subversive" texts, which were used to redefine the parameters of the English literary canon. The most common feature of this stigmatization is the representative role that the previously excluded texts have continued to play after they achieved inclusion in the canon. What needs to be stressed is that especially representative countercanonical works whose early entry into the canon signaled the "multiculturalization" or "decolonization" of English studies exhibit the stigma of canonical disorder, which persists and takes on additional meaning in the wake of liberal canon reformation.

The term stigma does not here refer to a moral or aesthetic judgment on any of the supposedly non-great texts that first disrupted the old canon and subsequently achieved canonical status themselves. Some scholars may persist in questioning the literary merit of newly canonized works and assert the inherent greatness of the traditional canon, but stigmatization, as I use the term, is not the mark of negative judgment. This is not to say that ideological [End Page 297] factors do not impinge on the limited inclusion of works by women, gay and lesbian, and nonwhite authors in reading lists or on their symbolic positioning in them. I want to suggest that stigma can be understood as an effect of the eventual canonization of formerly countercanonical works; it is as if the violence of inclusion inscribes the surface of a seemingly recalcitrant text at the moment when it passes from margin to center. The stigma results from the disturbing transformation of the countercanonical into the canonical, a process that domesticates an ostensibly insurgent work and authorizes its more general and excessive pedagogical use. Once the textual incarnation of political resistance to the exclusivity of canonical practice, the newly canonized "nontraditional" text is now subject to the literary order of symbolic representation; furthermore, the stigma of canonization is often accentuated by what Jonathan Arac (1999: 778) calls "hypercanonization." For Arac, hypercanonization describes the consensus in academic judgment that locates a text at the apex of its field. Arac is mostly concerned with the way that hypercanonization in the literary can carry over to idolatry in the media. For present purposes, I am principally interested in the way that hypercanonization suggests some kind of compensation for past exclusion but in fact overburdens a text with a singular representative function.

The hypercanonization of Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart (1958) as the representative postcolonial text, which I will argue occurred in the 1980s, can be attributed to its capacity to stand in as a collective African response to European colonization and misrepresentation. Its publication during the massive decolonization of British Africa reinforced the idealistic notion that literary self-representation is connected to political self-determination. Moreover, by using a line from Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" for its title, the novel staged an African intervention in the canon of English literature that connected it to the tradition of a hegemonic high modernism. All of these factors contributed to the definition of Things Fall Apart as the "quintessential" postcolonial African narrative and to its hypercanonization. Thus hypercanonization is not compensation for the postcolonial manipulation of the text but rather is an indication of the text's historical role in transforming the canon. Hypercanonization also underscores the historical transformation of the book's status and...


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