How would you respond to this?

John McCreery mccreery at
Sat Feb 12 02:47:48 UTC 2000

The following message was composed in response to a debate concerning "the
canon" on Phil-Lit.  I have seen an opportunity to relate what we do to
issues that exercise our colleagues in other academic disciplines. What
would you add to this?


In a previous message, I wrote,

"There are points in the argument that I find a bit slippery. Still, when I
read the closing line, 'We must free ourselves from the bogey of the canon,
and begin attending to the acts of judgment which just are literary study,'
the anthropologist in me applauds."

Since I know that BOTH the canon (if there still is one) and the fringes of
my academic discipline are likely to be esoteric to my colleagues here, I
would like to offer a bit of elaboration. I offer here a few bits from
Richard Bauman 1986 [1992], Story, performance and event: Contextual studies
of oral narrative.

Bauman is an anthropologist who is also a folklorist. His "folk" are folks
who live in rural Texas. I suspect that D.G. Myer has met a good many of
them. Bauman's problem is the mirror image of that confronted by defenders
of "the canon." The literature and performances that interest him are the
very antithesis of anything canonical. The reflection in the mirror is so
precise, however, that he, too, must try to distinguish convincingly the
relationship between the sociology and the aesthetics of the work that he
analyses. He does, I think, a pretty good job and suggests, to this reader
at least, the following proposition.


Bauman writes, p.3,

"Briefly stated, I understand performance as a mode of communication, a way
of speaking, the essence of which resides in the assumption of
responsibility to an audience for a display of communicative skill,
highlighting the way in which communication is carried out, above and beyond
its referential content. From the point of view of the audience, the act of
expression on the part of the performer is thus laid open to evaluation for
the way it is done, for the relative skill and effectiveness of the
performer's display. It is also offered for the enhancement of experience,
through the present appreciation of the intrinsic qualities of the act of
expression itself. Performance thus calls forth special attention to and
heightened awareness of both the act of expression and the performer. Viewed
in these terms, performance may be understood as the enactment of the poetic
function, the essence of spoken artistry."

How, then, is the "enactment of the poetic function" treated sociologically?

Bauman continues, p. 3,

"Oral performance, like all human activity, is situated, its form, meaning
and functions rooted in culturally defined scenes or events -- bounded
segments of the flow of behavior and experience that constitute meaningful
contexts for action, interpretation, and evaluation. In the ethnography of
oral performance, the performance event has assumed a place beside the text
as a fundamental unit of description and analysis, providing the most
concretely empirical framework for the comprehension of oral literature as
social action by directing attention to the actual conduct of artistic
verbal performance in social life. . . .

^p. 3-4,

"The structure of performance vents is a product of the systemic interplay
of numerous situational factors, prominently including the following:

1. Participants' identities and roles. . . .
2. The expressive means employed in performance. . . .
3. Social interactional ground rules, norms, and strategies for performance
and criteria for its interpretation and evaluation. . . .
4. The sequence of actions that make up the scenario of the event. . . ."

[Long lists of references have been omitted.]

Whan, then, one might ask, becomes of the artfulness, the poetic dimension
of the arts Bauman studies?

p. 8,

"In respect to form, for example, a performance orientation has led to
discoveries of patterning principles realized in performance but obscured by
older notions of verbal texts -- features of prosoy and paralanguage, of
dialogic construction, of oral characterization. This, in turn, has led to a
powerful reconceptualization of the nature of oral texts and of the
problematics of text making and translation in the presentation of oral
texts in print. . . .And the understanding of performance as fundamentally
social has opened the way to the elucidation of form-function relationships
of which we have hiterto had only impressionistic inklings at best.

"A further notable consequence of our deeper awareness of the artfulness of
oral literature and the radical importance of performance as constitutive of
verbal art has been the restoration of the work of oral literature to the
individual artist who produced it and a recognition of the creative
individuality of the performer's accomplishment. . . .The ethnography of
performance, attuned to the unique and emergent aspects of performance as
much as to the traditional, conventional ones, presents us with not merely a
Bini story, but the impressive oral literary accomplishment represented by
Aimiyekeagbon Ogbebor's narrative of the Oba Ewuakpe. . . ., not merely a
Clackamas myth, but the stark and harrowing tragedy of 'The Sun's Myth' by
Charles Cultee. . . ., Not merely a Texas tall tale, but the masterful
performance by Ed Bell of 'The Bee Tree'. . . .The point is that the student
of oral literature, no less than the scholar of written literature,
confronts individual folk poets and unique works of literary creation,
worthy of critical attention as such, as artists and works of art."

Here, I suggest, lies the nub of our dilemma. Attacks on "the canon" are
invariably claims that this or that voice must not be neglected. Defenses of
"the canon" are inevitably claims that a certain set of voices must be
attended to. In a world where the number of voices demanding our attention
is growing exponentially, neither party can be satisfied. The best we can do
is listen for a while to those which enter our lebenswelt and discriminate
among those the ones that are worth listening to. How to do that
effectively, without shutting our minds to the unfamiliar [the
fundamentalist trap] or allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed [buried in
Clamor's Swamp], is an art we all need to learn. If our professors of
literature help us get better at it, they have done us a good turn.

John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd.
Tel +81-45-314-9324
Fax +81-45-316-4409
email mccreery at

"Making Symbols is Our Business"

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