Link to Archive of Issues The Western Canon - by Edward Said

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Created: October 24, 2001 Latest Update: February 3, 2002

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Edward Said on The Western Canon

Journal entry by jeanne

Review and Essay by Jeanne Curran, Susan R. Takata, and Olivier Urbain
Copyright: Jeanne Curran, Susan R. Takata, and Olivier Urbain: October 2001.
and Individual Authors. "Fair Use" encouraged.


This essay is based on Edward Said's "Identity, Authority, and Freedom: The Potentate and the Traveler." in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Edward W. Said, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2000. ISBN: 0-674-00302-0 at p. 386.

At p. 386, Said opens his lecture with this story:

Several weeks ago, as I was reflecting on what I might say at this occasion, I encountered a friendly colleague, whom I asked for ideas and suggestions. "What is the title of your lecture?" he asked. "Identity, Authority, and Freedom," I replied. "Interesting," he responded. "you mean, therefore, identity is the faculty, authority is the administration, and freedom . . . " Here he paused meaningfully. "Yes?" I asked. "Freedom," he said, "is retirement."

This prescription is altogether too cynical, and in its flippancy reflected what I think both of us felt: that the issue of academic freedom in a setting like this one here in Cape Town is far more complex and problematic for most of the usual formulas to cover with any kind of accuracy.

Said emphasizes that the conservative view of the Western Canon is one that views the concerns of those who have been denied a voice in that Canon is as bound by its Western Civ perspective of inclusion as the hitherto "voiceless" groups are bound by their postcolonial perspective of exclusion. These are the "wicked" little unstated assumptions that confound all the discussions.

More soon . . . .

Concepts for Conceptual Linking:

  • The Western canon - The great works of literature from the Greeks to modernism that Western civilization recognizes as basic to a knowledge of Western literature and culture. Colonialism and empire have tended to take the World canon as the Western canon.
  • unstated assumptions - Assumption of "given" beliefs as "true" without rational investigation.

Discussion Topics:

  1. Said describes the The Closing of the American Mind as "a diatribe against an assorted set of villains, including Nietzsche, feminism, Marxism, and Black studies . . . ." What unstated assumptions does Said suggest could explain this?

    Consider, at pp. 390-391, that Said discusses the politicization of the university, in which professors during the Vietnam war years began to depend on government subsidies for their research in the social sciences as well as the natural science. Consider also that new interest groups, especially representing minorities, clamored for inclusion in the same social sciences and natural sciences, sharpening the competition for both topical inclusion in the curriculum, and inclusion in access to funding.

    The conservative elements, who held apologetic views of the status quo, considered themselves to be "upholding standards" in the matter of the purity of the Western Canon in matters of curriculum, and saw no conflict of interest in taking money from corporate and foundation funding to support the conservative perspective .