- Feminism and the Culture Wars
If you believe “the culture wars” in higher education and beyond have become a tired subject, do not blame Lillian S. Robinson. Robinson’s book In the Canon’s Mouth: Dispatches from the Culture Wars offers meaningful, sophisticated, and delightfully sarcastic commentary on subjects falling under the umbrella term of dismissal du jour, “political correctness.” Despite their ubiquitous presence on most campuses, the culture wars show no sign of petering out, a fact that Robinson’s continuing work on the subject argues and to which its existence attests. Robinson’s introduction points out that the past two decades have seen many changes in the ways that these “culture wars” have been configured, not the least of which is that “the limits of political discourse have decidedly narrowed” (xii). However, according to Robinson, “Everyone, nowadays, accepts that when we are talking culture, we are talking politics” (xiii). Unabashedly political and theoretical in the most useful, expansive sense, Robinson’s work—not as widely known as that of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or Gerald Graff—has been pioneering and deserves a larger audience.
To read In the Canon’s Mouth from cover to cover is to observe, through one feminist scholar’s writings, the twists and turns that arguments about culture and education have taken since the Reagan administration. Robinson’s book, a collection of essays written between 1982 and 1996, demonstrates the ways in which issues such as activism, aesthetics, class politics, canon formation, censorship, multiculturalism, racism, and sexism have come into play in our debates over curricula and cultural artifacts. With several exceptions (including the short, recently written introduction, titled “Dispatches”), Robinson’s essays have been arranged chronologically. Each is introduced by a newly added paragraph from the author, contextualizing the concerns she addressed in the piece and assessing its relation to her larger body of work.
Those coming to Robinson’s book for a fully formed argument will be disappointed. She begins In the Canon’s Mouth with the caveat “This book is not really finished. The contents are salvos . . . . brief dispatches from the front” (xi). Unlike much academic work in this vein, however, Robinson’s essays are pithy and entertainingly argued, averaging fewer than ten pages in length. The previously unpublished essays (six of 15) are occasional pieces, many written as keynote lectures. These are joined by articles and book reviews that first appeared in academic journals or national periodicals. Retread essay collections have become an increasingly common—and sometimes irritating—genre among senior scholars, but in Robinson’s case the compilation works. It works because the pieces refer to and build upon each other and because one never doubts that there is good reason to get her writings into as many hands as possible.
In the Canon’s Mouth opens with six essays that look at what has happened to (and is still happening to) women’s writing within the traditional literary curriculum. Feminist scholars will likely be familiar with one or more of these pieces, as they have become “classics” themselves in a newly developing canon of feminist literary theory. In the frequently reprinted “Treason Our Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon,” Robinson remarks on now familiar—though still unresolved—issues of contention and contradiction among feminists, including whether it is more important to defend the quality of recently “discovered” women’s writings or to redefine literary quality. She argues, “In one sense, the more coherent our sense of the female tradition is, the stronger our eventual case. Yet, the longer we wait, the more comfortable the women’s literature ghetto—separate, apparently autonomous, and far from equal—may begin to feel” (19). Robinson’s statement of the dilemma remains all too relevant. Her sensible conclusion is that we must “while not abandoning our new-found female tradition, . . . return to a confrontation with ‘the’ canon . . . . not to label and hence dismiss even the most sexist literary classics, but . . . to apprehend them, finally, in all their human dimensions” (19). Feminist readers today will likely be more skeptical of a female tradition and, perhaps, wary...