Who Decides What’s In “The Canon”?

Today’s Read: Alexandra Kemmerer, Juristische Kanonfragen: Andere Auffassungen nähren die Neugier (Legal Canon Questions: Other Views Feed Curiosity), July 27, 2020, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, https://www.faz.net/aktuell/wissen/geist-soziales/juristische-kanonfragen-gegenprobe-auf-den-juristischen-kanon-16682327.html.

Today’s read is a short newspaper article written by my friend Alexandra Kemmerer, who is a Berlin-based senior fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law (located in Heidelberg).  She also writes for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, which is where this article was published.

This article is in German, and it stretched me in terms of both language and substance, so I hope I get everything right AND can do it justice.  I also want to use it as a springboard for some thoughts I have about how the concept of the canon affects academic librarianship.

My understanding of the word “canon,” in the sense Alexandra uses it, refers to a body of literature that, under a general agreement of scholars of a discipline, imparts the fundamental knowledge required to engage in scholarly analysis of that discipline.  This concept, according to Merriam-Webster, originated in the church, in which one definition of the term is “an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture.”

Alexandra’s main contention is that “questions of canon are questions of power” (“Kanonfragen sind Machtfragen”).  She questions how, in a field that is chronically under-diversified, and which will, likely for the foreseeable future, be characterized (geprägt) by “old white men” and their works, worthy candidates might be discovered and nominated to occupy an “alternative canon” (“Alternativkanon”).

According to Alexandra, one method of populating an alternative canon is to look at “apocryphal works” (“apokryphe Schriften”) of the past.  I was not familiar with the term “apocryphal” before reading this article.  According to Merriam-Webster, one meaning of this word is the quality of being outside the canon.  However, other synonyms include words like “hidden,” “fictitious,” “of doubtful origin,” “legendary,” and “mythical.”

In a way, I suppose this makes sense: if something is not included in “the canon,” it is, effectively, hidden away, and kept outside the consideration of most future scholars who will consider the subject.  It is interesting that this word has also evolved, at least in English, to cast doubt on the “truthfulness” of the work. Just because a work is extra-canonical, does that mean that it’s not true?  Furthermore, who decides which ideas and analyses are true, and worthy of not being confined to the shadows, but out in the open for everyone to think about and build on?

In a discipline that is dominated by “old white men” (as law is, let’s be very honest and clear about that), one cannot help but believe that they would have a tendency, whether overt or implicit, to protect and champion their colleagues who they view as their peers, their intellectual equals.  In other words, other men who may not be so old, but are definitely white.  And so it goes.

(Before the white men start complaining, I KNOW NOT ALL OF YOU DO THIS.  But it must be said that this happens in law a lot.  I am a law librarian and I have seen a lot of research over the years.  I am also going to call out my colleagues in the library, starting in the next paragraph…)

This leads me to ask how, we, as librarians, are complicit in creating and perpetuating the canon.  When I teach research to students, I often talk to them about looking at the number of CITING REFERENCES when reviewing the literature on their topic.  This, for lack of a better metric, best indicates what the most widely-read views on a topic are.  It is, effectively, indicative of the canon.  We would be irresponsible if we did not suggest that researchers pay attention to that data point during the discovery phase of their research.

But what of those papers with only a few citing references, those books that have only been checked out once or twice and that no one really talks about?  What about the sources that are not in English, that were published in journals that no one has ever heard of and that are not included in the major indexes, and/or whose authors have decidedly un-anglo-sounding names?

Does any of that mean that the scholarship expressed there is less worthy of our consideration?

It’s tough.  Researchers only have so much time to read and think before they have to start writing themselves.  I view it as part of my responsibility as a research librarian to show researchers how to find as many “important” sources as possible as quickly as possible.  But this worries me, because there must be A LOT of valuable, important, and contemplative works out there written by smart people who are not white men.  Don’t I also have a responsibility to amplify those voices, and to not perpetuate the oppressiveness of the canon?

Anyway, to get back to Alexandra’s article, she concludes by taking a closer look at a few scholars who effectively excluded themselves from the canon for various reasons.  One of them was a constitutional law scholar who taught at the University of Augsburg named Dieter Suhr.  Of course I had never heard of him.  He was a white man who was not old — tragically, he died at the age of 61 in an accident while on vacation in Greece.

According to the brief description I read about his work, he had what were considered to be interesting ideas about rights, equality, and freedom.  He criticized the monetary system for perpetuating inequality, and championed the “creation of conditions that enabled all people to meet, as equals, in freedom” (“die Herstellung von Bedingungen, die allen Menschen eine Begegnung unter Gleichen in Freiheit ermöglicht”).

Professor Suhr did his scholarly work in the 1970s and 1980s in West Germany, during the height of the Cold War.  Perhaps his ideas sounded a little too much like communism, which I am old enough to remember was complete and total anathema at that time, to have gained traction or favor.  I don’t know.  But if you look at the state of the world today, maybe he wasn’t so wrong to be thinking about this.  Economic inequality is one of the most significant problems of our time, and is at the root of many other social ills that plague 21st-century humankind.  His works might be worth another look, if you can find them.

Librarians: let’s commit ourselves to thinking more about “the canon,” for whom it works, and who might benefit from its dismantling.

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