The Literary Canon and the Uses of Postmodernism

Posted Friday August 10, 2007 by John Gunders in |

As promised, I return to Julie Bishop’s speech at the Australian Literature Roundtable dinner.

The speech as a whole is firmly based in the government’s rhetorical attacks on the academic left known as the “culture wars”. Usually based around a moral panic about the teaching of “postmodernism” in schools, the tactic parodies legitimate concerns about curriculum design and content, and forces opponents to either support what are some pretty dodgy practices, or to agree with people you wouldn’t want to be caught talking to. I’ve blogged about this theme before.

Bishop returns to that time-dishonoured tactic of taking an extreme example (out of context, of course) and then holding it up as exemplary: in this case concerning the study of literature and the apparent relativism of postmodernism (for once she doesn’t use the “p” word, but we all know who she’s talking about).

But in typifying and dismissing this type of English teaching, Bishop makes a curious comparison. In the first place, she makes an impassioned defence of canonical literature:

In teaching classical literature, we open a window onto the triumphs and tragedies of times gone by.

More than just developing higher-order literacy skills, we share the history and the heritage of our past with future generations, and we hand down a sense of the ages.

In this sense, William Shakespeare is just as relevant today as he was in Tudor times. Richard III and Julius Caesar, teach us an important lesson about the danger of despotism, whilst Macbeth is
a thesis on betrayal.

And in twentieth century English literature, George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four is the standard work on totalitarianism, while Animal Farm, through its parody of the Russian Revolution, demonstrates the corruption of ideas.

These great works reveal the importance of the battle for individual liberty, the foundations of democracy and the role of social norms in the functioning of society.

An excellent example of this last inheritance – the social norms of the day – is illustrated through the works of Jane Austen. Austen opened a door on late 18th and early 19th century England to provide a valuable insight into the social history of that age.

Great literature also presents ideas with eloquence, and provides models and examples by which students can develop their skills of expression.

Now I don’t disagree profoundly with this view. I’m well aware of the sorts of ideological formations that underlie the canon, and I’ve read enough Matthew Arnold to know how “the classics” are meant to “civilise” the masses (see Culture and Anarchy, 1869), but I’m not one to dismiss a canonical collection just because it can be put to evil use. Bishop does tend to lay it on a bit thick when she starts trilling about the “foundations of democracy”, but the canon gained its status for a reason.

But a few lines further on, you come to a very revealing passage. Presented as part cautionary tale, part lurid sensationalism, Bishop gives an example of what happens when the evil postmodernists start to indoctrinate our children:

Another example – a student in Queensland was asked to write a feminist critique of the German fairy tale Rapunzel.

I quote: “Even the title Rapunzel is not left without the gender assumption. For example, the story title Rapunzel is in fact the name of a vegetable, therefore reinforcing the gender roles of women as a vegetable, which can be linked with cooking chores deemed to be a woman’s profession.”

That student received top marks.

Give me a break! Why can’t The Brothers Grimm just be about a young maiden imprisoned in a tower where love and goodness triumphed over evil.

No Julie, you give me a break! How is it that Shakespeare, Austen, and Orwell teach us greater truths about society, democracy, betrayal, and corruption, while Rapunzel is just a children’s tale with no greater claim than to be entertainment? Both Jacques Derrida and Louis Marin have used folk tales to great effect in their philosophy (although of course they were both French and therefore suspected of harbouring postmodernist tendencies!), and the story itself develops many of the themes common in folk heritage (which were not originally merely children’s stories). So it can’t be the simplicity or otherwise of the stories that makes one fit to transmit universal values, and the other not. I complained about this to a former university literature teacher who laughed and told me not to expect a coherent literary theory in a political speech, but I do expect a modicum of honesty, or at least, for the lies to be a little less transparent.

The culture wars have a long way to run, but minor skirmishes like this don’t do anything to advance the stated goal of improving the teaching of culture. Rather, it just digs it in behind ideological battlelines and further entrench the relative positions.

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