Aiming the Canon: National Emergency and the Errant Courses of the Literary

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William Spanos provocatively occasions his book, The Errant Art of Moby Dick: the Canon, the Cold War and the Struggle for American Studies with an untimely call for a thinking that attempts to wrestle with the failure of the oppositional momentum of contemporary theory in the face of a more ‘traditional’ discourse of canon formation. The call for such an investigation is untimely because it is claimed that we have suffered from a surfeit of critical theory and that to pursue even its failure is to stubbornly continue to flog a dead horse. On the contrary, I would argue that the urgency of Spanos’ call for a historicization of ‘failure’ is in fact inexorable in light of our own occasion, which for the purposes of this paper, I choose to mark primarily with the terrifying arsenal deployed in Lynne Cheney’s responses to what in common parlance has come to be called, simply, ‘9/11.’ In the aftermath of the attacks, the therapeutic solution proposed by the vice-president’s wife has, in one of its avatars taken the form of a sustained effort to reinvigorate American Studies and pedagogically instill traditional American values, by means of canonical interventions in the field.1 According to the terms of this cultural contract, the aforementioned values are in turn guaranteed to combat a ‘multiculturalist agenda,’ which under the aegis of the present Bush administration is codified as necessarily and principally ‘un-American.’2 Not surprisingly, the explicitly conservative stance demonstrated in this attempt to institutionalize homespun values with a view to conquering ‘the alien threat,’ has its corollary in branding indelibly ‘unpatriotic’ those minds which attempt to theorize the variegated modalities by which an oppressive architectonics of the dominant political power is sustained.3 In the context of my own argument one of these modalities is to be understood as the discourse of canon formation, that is, the institutional production and consumption of literary texts and the dissemination of discourses ancillary to these texts.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalTheory and Event
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2005


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