Week 8--Is a Canon a Cannon?

Anne Dalke's picture

Our readings & viewings this week include, for Tuesday, a selection of three (Jeanne Livingstone's Paris is Burning, along with Judith Butler's and bell hooks' responses to the film) and, for Thursday, a series of excerpts from Katie Cannon's collection of essays.

On Tuesday, I'll ask you to assume the role of either Livingstone, Butler or hooks, in a conversation among them; who would you like to play, and why? Which position is most problematic for you, and why?

On Thursday, I'll ask you to think together about the connections between hooks' dislike of the way "spectacle" works in Livingstone's film, Canon's observations about womanist perspectival discourse and canon formation, and the exchange between Calderon and Jessy about how and why we might want to work our way through a canon. How are these various positions aligned, and how do they differ? Which one compels you, and why? (Or not, and why not?)

hslavitt's picture

As someone who almost went

As someone who almost went to St. John's College-Anapolis, a college whose very essence is a set literary canon, I'll be the first to admit that there is something so attractive about having a widely accepted reading list that in certain circles will identify you as well-read. I didn't go there because yes, I have a huge interest in feminism and literature by women, and indeed, not surprisingly, there were only three...THREE...women!!!! Needless to say, they were all white (Austen, Woolf, O'Connor if you were curious). For me it's hard not to repeat this pattern of canonizing feminist texts. Honestly, there are some texts that you have to read if you want to enter into a dialogue. I don't think it's wrong to demand that we, the handywomen of feminism, all have universally necessary tools like hammers and screwdrivers in our metaphorical toolbox. I think that as long as our canon is never in a fixed, set-in-stone state and is as inclusive as humanly possible, we will have a great starting point for feminist discussion.
matos's picture

"You're full of shit and this is why".*

We started discussion by reflecting mroe on Paris is Burning, Judith Butler and gender as a performance, in which it was said that "What you're doing is just an imitation of a idealogy." Besdides gender performance the idea of "realness" that was brought up in Paris is Burning came up again.

Then the question of "color blindness" came up, startingn with Patricia Williams story about her son's alleged visual problems, where "anxiety is redifined as deficiency". The question or eradication racial/ethnic categories lead to the idea of eradicating gender/sexuality categories and the class was asked to ponder what is more "ideal": Color and Gender Blind or the Multiplication of Identities. Then we came up with several ideas and problems with making "categories" more palatable. Making these categories "stereotype blind", loss of categories means a loss of cultural diffferences and differences can't be ignored, et cetera et cetera.

Moving on...

Discussion moved on to Canon Formation.

This convo started with virtual "conversation" between Ingrid and Jessy. Should a canon be "a foundation" or a compass? If it's a foundation, how far back do we go? Could it a cross disciplanary?

Then it went to the question of why is a canon so important. It's a weapon and a comfort. Then we questioned the stabilty of a canon. Is is set in stonne or is it "a living and breathing canon"? And we came up with two goals of a canon: 1) Thinking for yourself (2) Being succesfull in debate, "cultural capital".

Then we related womanism to canon formation. Is the womanist creation of their own category and canon counter procuctive? Is a step toward rebuilding "the canon" ? Can a canon become too personal, does it go against the definition of a canon?




The idea of creating personal and categorical canons linked back the discussion of eradication of categories in general. Does inclusion mean eradication differeneces or embracing them?

* My favorite quote from discussion

Ann Dixon's picture

do you have a visual metaphor for the canon?

I was thnking that visual props would be kind of cool to use when talking about canon construction. For example, is the canon "contained?" (glass jar, big box, something else?) Then, physical 3-d representations of what's in the canon (marbles, legos, something else?). Does a physical representation physically unsettle all of the other elements of the canon when it's added? What about when adding something breaks the wall of the container?

Ann '83 

YJ's picture

Personalizing the Cannon

First, before I get to the readings, I would like to say that much like Flora, I don't generally like utopian theories. I feel you're always going to leave something out in trying to construct such a vision-or at least most of the existing theories I've encountered have always seemed to be missing something crucial. I especially always disliked the idea of "colorblindness" because much as Patricia Walker points out, it's an idea that seems/sounds like a good idea but in reality, is really the opposite. My problem with ignoring color is that it ignores or calls for one to ignore what is a large part of self-identification for many people of color. I know that for myself, I don't want people to ignore that fact that I'm Korean/Asian (not that they even really could) but rather, that in only viewing me as an "Asian" or "Korean" they're limiting who I am as a person. They're boxing me in before they even get to know me as a whole person. I am Asian, but that is not all that I am.

I've also been thinking a lot since class about the similarities and differences between race and gender and the utopian vision I believe Steph brought up about a race-blind and gender-blind society. While I certainly see the appeal theoretically, I also feel a strong hesitancy, primarily because as I stated before, my racial/ethnic identity compose a large part of my identity. Therefore, I want to be recognized as "Asian" but not only as such. Another problem raised with any utopian theory is that not everyone wants to bre treated the same, i.e. some people may not agree with me and do not want to be identified as "Asian" or "Latina" or "Black," etc. etc. My apologies if I sound like I'm attacking anyone, I'm only using it as a means of framing my own thinking. As for a gender-blind society, I still feel a hesitancy but I'm not quite sure why. I think it goes back to my socialization as a female- I want to be identified as a girl, I want that recognition and I don't really have a good reason for wanting that.

Moving on to the idea of literary cannons, I really like the idea of creating our own personal cannons. I think, as people suggested in class, that we could revise our conception of what a cannon is or what it should mean. Instead of viewing a cannon as a selection of definitive texts, we could view it as a jumping off point from which we can create our own cannons. The first image I see when I visualize such a cannon is a cornucopia (perhaps because Thanksgiving is coming up) in which the "cannon" itself would be comprised of smaller cannons that could speak to some more specific aspect we can identify with. So there could be an African-American female cannon, and a Male Feminist Cannon, and so forth. I suppose that kind of defeats the purpose of having a cannon in the first place, but I think it would be a way of being more inclusive but within limits. So the overarching cannon under which these smaller cannons would go under would be the "Feminist" Cannon. And from there we could each create our own personal cannon-I think it's too much to expect or desire a cannon that speaks to every part of our identity. We should and should want to be a part of that process of cannon-formation, especially if we seek a cannon that speaks to us personally.

Anne Dalke's picture

alternative metaphors

If you don't like the image (or reality) of canon as cannon, think outloud here about some alternative metaphors for what we are doing when we construct a canon of texts.

EMaciolek's picture


Weirdest conflict is going on in my head right now - I love womanism, and that four-part definition that was given by Alice Walker really inspired me. I felt the most in touch with feminism I've ever felt after reading that, but then it seems like I can't fully participate in that definition because I'm not African American. (That feels awkward to say since race is such a messy subject, but the reading is overwhelming for me at the moment.)

On the issue of the canon...

I feel that every facet of society needs their own canon. It is one of the most meaningful ways to define what a group of people stand for, how they think, and what is important to them. It's literally like saying "Here - this is the best we can produce, this is the height of our intelligence." In that way, it's amazingly important what Katie Cannon is doing in forming a canon of African American women's literature.

On the other hand, when it comes to learning and schooling, I feel there are definitely ideas that are taught across the board no matter where you went to high school or college. However, the texts that accompany those ideas vary infinitely. So to work our way through a canon, we'd have to pick a specific canon. But even then there are different ideas as to what the texts are that should be included in the canon. Then there are different levels of the canon within the canon (hypercanon, etc.) So really is it even worth deciding? Nothing will be satisfactory for everyone. There are texts that are typically recommended for a certain genre or discipline and those are what seem to embody the canon, but no one has a set list. Also, how boring would it be if there were one? Then everyone would just scramble to read all those books so that they could say they've read them and that'd be it. Nothing could change or grow about them, that canon would plateau.

khwheeler08 - I was wondering if you could clarify what you meant about men having to subjugate themselves in order for women to really become equal. I agree with you, but were you talking about this happening in a Utopian society or in the world today? And if it is in the world today how do you think that would manifest itself?



smigliori's picture

"What's the point of it all?"

As class ended on Tuesday, we were in a heated discussion about Butler's theory of gender, and what exactly the point of it all was. I was surprised about the amount of time we had to spend going over what Butler's theory was, and the question that someone asked at the end of class: "so, what's the point of it all?"

This is far from the first time I've read Butler (though I've never read this particular one before), and I was surprised by how easy to read this essay was. Perhaps this was at least partly because of my past experience with gender, but I also believe this one is actually easier to comprehend.

I pointed out in class that Butler's theory is about "gender performativity." In Imitation and Gender Insubordination, Butler says that "gender is not a performance that a prior subject elects to do, but gender is performative in that sense that it constitutes as an effect the very subject it appears to express. It is a compulsory performance in the sense that acting out of line with heterosexual norms brings ostracism, punishment, and violence, not to mention the transgressive pleasures produced by those very prohibitions." In class someone asked if it was possible to "not perform", but because the performance of gender is the expression of the self, to exist is to be classified within the gender binary, and therefore one is performing gender all the time.

If gender performance is not a choice, then what's the point of it all? Why does Butler's theory matter? Butler's theory points out the inadequacy of the gender binary. It shows how sex and gender do not follow from each other. It paves the way for new ways of thinking about sex and gender and sexuality. The understanding that gender is categorized by the ways in which we are socialized to behave based on the genitals with which we are born is important. The fact that some people deviate from these norms even with this socialization points to the fact that gender is a social construct, with no real basis. This is not to say that "women" cannot be feminine and "men" cannot be masculine, but that "men" can be feminine and "women" can be masculine. Or, maybe eventually, that people can be masculine and/or feminine.

This, to me, is why Butler's theory is important. This is perhaps also why large numbers of "feminists" (I use quotations to show that this is how these people define themselves, not because of my personal beliefs on whether or not they are) dismiss Butler and other postmodern feminists, claiming that their work is too abstract, among other arguments.

sarahcollins's picture

Tuesday's discussion

This was the first time I've read Butler, and I liked her analysis a lot, to the extent that I understood it. I'd like to clarify what I said in class about "reality" and how it contributed to Venus' death. I believe Butler would say that there is no reality, only the rules by which the members of the drag contests judge "realness", (what Butler's metaphorical policeman and Livingstone's diegetic shots of "real" white people consider normal), which is to say every hegemonizing rule that restricts their dreams of becoming legendary and happiness to the drag hall. This is why it's so complicated to say whether what they are doing is subversive are not: are they merely perpetuating the constructions put in place by heterosexual culture? Or are they somehow repeating them to hyperbole by “mastering” them and forcing the interpellation machinery to break down? Although Venus "denaturalized" sex, she didn't disrupt expectations for what a "woman" means and still desired the house in the burbs and a providing husband.


Also, one of the most interesting points Butler makes is that not all drag is automatically subversive, and on the contrary, it acts as a "ritualistic release for a heterosexual economy that must constantly police its own boundaries against the invasion of queerness" (126) (it sounds so primitive!) I wish we could’ve spent more time on these three sources, Tuesday didn't feel long enough. 


After reading hooks' reaction to the "spectaclization" (?) of the drag balls and the bit about how synagogue- or Catholic church-goers would feel if a group of tourists from Harlem walked in to observe them, I was reminded of Simone de Beauvoir's line on how someone who "belongs" can be Otherized by traveling to a new country and becoming the foreigner. 


I was really surprised by how the "reading" excerpt pulled from Butler was applied to literature and texts, since I thought it was just slang for how to dress down and insult someone on their inability to pass as “real”, but it raises interesting questions when it's used as a critique for Livingstone's film. 


I'm excited about the Katie's Canon discussion!

kwheeler's picture

“If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the pro

Jessy ended her last post on her exchange with Ingrid by saying, “Within every classroom, there are students at different levels. So ... who is responsible for fixing that? And the question is applicable to society generally: Are those privileged by a heterosexist hierarchy obliged to fix heterosexism? …If there is a way to give up privilege, what good would it do to give it up?”

In response, yes, I do think those who are privileged enough to have an advantage in a given situation or society should make an effort “fix” the problem. You can use your position of privilege to help those who are at a disadvantage. I think what Jessy says here brings up a very interesting point. One of the biggest problems women face in our androcentric society is that men do not acknowledge and therefore fail to address the reality that is the inequality that exists on so many levels for women and minority groups.

In my last post concerning Simone de Beauvoir I tried to articulate the idea that if men (the privileged) begin to perceive of themselves also as others instead as selves we might be able to transcend the hegemonic nature of the self/other binary. I suppose they would have to, in a sense, subjugate themselves? Or rather equate themselves with women? I think what I’m getting at is that it is privileged men who inflict repression on women so to dispel the problem of androcentrism men have to become conscious of the problems they are creating and take part in the effort to fix them. Because politically, they do hold the power to repress us further or to improve our condition.

So what does all this mean in the context of Thursday’s reading Katie’s Canon? Well, I think Cannon address this in her Introduction when she critiques the prevalent idea of the universality of “rigorous, academically excellent scholarship”. Her critique is a reaction to the idea that works by African American women scholars “exclude men from being the subject of womanist discourse, especially when men have always included women.” This “pseudo-inclusivity” is the problem with mainstream literature and indeed with the patriarchal society in which we live. The privileged are unaware of the repression and hegemony because they are not the ones being subjugated. They must be made aware of the subjugation of others and sympathetic towards those being oppressed in order for there to be positive change. I think reading Womanist literature is a great place to start!

Jessy's picture

Sure, but what's the solution?

*I* am aware "the subjugation of others" within the system of the classroom, because I am not privileged in *all* social situations, or in every intellectual exchange or classroom setting; I have felt intellectually intimidated, I have felt socially incapable, I have been inarticulate.

I am not sure what the role of an 'ally' ought to be, in this situation or in any other. My experiences in minority/marginalized positions makes me want those of the majority/normative to understand, and to not to get in my way.

I understand because I've been there, but how do I get out of the way (without betraying myself and my own interests)? How does any privileged person get out of the way? How many steps back, and stepping where?

I've heard the phrase "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" before, and it puzzles me. It makes sense insofar as it expresses the idea that we all have positions within the various intersecting dichotomies of marginality/normativity; thus, we are all part of the problem because we are all part of the system, the machine (even the marginalized? Perhaps this is directed solely at the normative and dominant?). What puzzles me is how to become part of the solution. How are we to go about dismantling the current status quo and erecting one in its place? What is the place of the privileged in that undertaking, and in what way does it differ from the place of the marginalized?

I am wary of any notion of the privileged fixing things for the marginalized: it makes me think of the schemes of some abolitionists to send all people of African descent in the US back to Africa; and the researchers behind the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment honestly considered themselves to be helping the black community, although they never gained the consent of the participants in their experiment or kept them fully informed.

I can't teach others how to take (intellectual) risks and I certainly can make take those risks for them, for example. The most I can do is make any given social setting one in which they feel comparatively safe (if you don't feel a little terrified, you're not taking a risk). But at what cost to my own intellectual/personal explorations? What is it about me that is intimidating (and this will vary, of course), and can I mute that? And will I choose to?

Abby's picture

Creating Our Own Spectacle (notes from 10/30)

  The theater addict in me got a good fix in our class on Tuesday, Oct. 30th.  We were made to assume the roles of the authors we had studied for that week (Judith Butler, bell hooks, Jeanne Livingston [filmmaker of "Paris is Burning"]) and perform a discourse between the three.  Fiercely opposing each other in viewpoint, our performative discussion between these women proved to be a delightfully heated one.

  Before the illusion actually began we were eased into the discourse with a bit of background on the evolution of the Gender and Sexuality program here at Bryn Mawr (formerly titled Feminist and Gender Studies) and on Judith Butler's theories of gender and performance.  From a Butlerian standpoint, we were told, all drag can be considered subversive.  Butler is vvery concerned with the idea that all gender is performative and therefore the blatant exposing of that performance via drag is disputing the "naturalness" of heterosexuality. 

  So, we went to our corners and hashed it out.  Here are some of the most important questions that I think were raised in our discussion:

 1. What gives Jeanne Livingston the right to do what she did?  To make a movie about this culture of which she presumably knows nothing.

 2. Why was more time not spent on Venus Extravaganza's death?  Is this a deliberate trivializing of the tragedy?

 3. Where (if anywhere) is the "real" in this world of performance?

  Representing Livingston was an interesting experience for me.  Originally I had agreed pretty strongly with the critiques of hooks and Butler, at least in part, but as I performed the response of Livingston I found some arguments I was not expecting to find.  The clearest example of this occurred when we, the collectice Livingston, were interrogated about the lack of attention paid to Venus' death in the film.  Our opponents had previously been chastising us for making this culture into nothing but a spectacle.  We then questioned their motivation is asking us to spectacleize Venus' death.  I think this particular disagreement is at the heart of the tension between the three viewpoints we examined and represented because it is concerned with importance of showing the "reality" vs. the "illusion."  As class continued we eventually came to a point of discussing if in fact the "real" really exists.  Some of us were invested in defending Butler's notion that everything is performance, that reality in fact is an illusion.  Others struggled with this notion.  In the rush of packing up to leave, to enter "reality" once again, we couldn't find a real consensus. 

Ann Dixon's picture

offer to connect you with alum groups

In case anyone missed it, I have made an offer to connect you with any group of alums on Athena's web, the social networking website for BMC alums. This is especially applicable for LGBTQ issues, but could be for any topic of your choosing.