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date: 01 December 2020

Canon and Classiclocked

  • Trevor RossTrevor RossDepartment of English, Dalhousie University

Summary

The literary canon, theorists contend, is a selection of reputable works that abstracts their value for specific purposes: to safeguard them from neglect or censure, reproduce social and institutional values, maintain them as exemplary in the formation of personal or communal identities, or objectify and enshrine standards of judgment. The value of canonical works is not felt reducible to these uses or the interests that canon-making may serve, but canonization is nonetheless thought to be a recognition of their value, even confirmation that this value has been sufficiently established, by consensus or institutional edict, that it no longer requires demonstration. The discourse of canonicity thus relies on an economy of belief about the possibility and validity of agreement about literary value. Within this economy, the canon, in whichever composition, is both the evidence and the outcome of agreement, without which value would seemingly become entirely speculative. At the same time, canonicity is also a form of attention paid to valuable works, and it is not the only such form. Canonical works are treated differently than are other valuable works, and the value of the same work may be described in a different rhetoric of valuation depending on what kind of valuable work it is perceived to be. A work may be treated as a reference point, a familiar and influential text whose contribution to culture is measured relative to one context. It may be viewed as a classic, a singular and standard work whose value is perceived across a distance of time or culture. Or it may be esteemed as a canonical text, whose vital and indefinable contribution is not seen as relative to any particular time or place. The discourse of canonicity thus serves to generate belief in the possibility of suspending, however provisionally, speculation and contingency.

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