Thoughts on “Firing the Canon”

I thought Pollock’s discussion of the canon, although difficult, was extremely interesting especially because we go to a school that bases most of its undergraduation system on what I consider to be an almost caricaturized worship of the Western canon. I don’t think I fully (or maybe even partially grasp what she’s saying, so what follows is an attempt to unpack her.) So, when reading Griselda Pollock in “Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desires and the Writings of Art History,” I was immediately reminded of Butler, both in the psychoanalytic language she uses and the transcendent theories of gender she envisions for the fields of art history and art itself, critiquing the canon of culture from an “outsiders’ perspective” in hopes of productive instability. As I understood it, the canon is to Pollock what gender is to Butler.

Pollock sees the “repressed” as becoming “a kind of structuring unconscious of the subject,” just like Butler’s psychic mimesis. In a way, the radical possibilities that Pollock describes in somewhat vague terms recall Butler’s description of a post-gender society – or a post-gender art; Pollock is careful to articulate that she wants neither the absence of gender or a polarization of it, “neither in the order of liberal sameness… nor in terms of an absolute and fundamental difference” but “a ‘difference from’ the norm and the signifier of a potentially differing structure of subjectivity” (28-29). As with Butler, however, the psychoanalytic language Pollock employs gives me very little idea what such a revolution of the canon would look like. Pollock talks about art as “aesthetic practices” that can “shift meaning, undo fixities… and make a difference” (288). Art could be considered in Butler’s theories as a type of drag, a performance that (while probably not incessant), is gendered and that needs to be interpreted as an expression of a binary that is not stable.

Pollock, at times, is more explicit about her connection to Freud than Butler is. Considering the process “which is hypothetically narrated as a passage from birth to the accession to language and Oedipalisation, sexing and sexualizing,” Pollock conceives of this process itself as a liberating system, whereas Butler uses psychoanalytic processes as mechanisms for the destructuring of gender.

On a non-Butler related note, I also thought that Pollock adds a very important consideration that had been lacking in Woolf and Walker – that of self-critisicm. For all of the destabilization and change and revolution that we want to do to oppressive or exclusionary art forms, Pollock asks that we “question our own texts for the desires they inscribe, for the investments which we feign through telling the stories of our own ideal egos: the woman artists we come to love and need to love in order to find a cultural space and identification for ourselves” (34). Pollock could be seen as speaking directly to Walker when she immediately asserts that all black women are Zora Hurston’s nieces. Someone raised a really good point in class the other day – what if Zora Hurston just wanted to be left alone, and what if she didn’t like Alice Walker had she had met her? By claiming (and yes, I think it is a claim) these previous female artists that come before us, what do we do to the possibilities of our own art? Do we limit ourselves to only ever produce “female art,” or are they a necessary support and history as we attempt to re-establish ourselves and work around the canon?

(Also, let me say that “Firing the Canon” is a great title. )

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One thought on “Thoughts on “Firing the Canon”

  1. I think your idea of connecting Pollock’s ideas to Butler’s ideas on gender is very interesting. To me, the connection makes sense in that the canon itself is understood as a “gendered” term with significations socially constructed and regulated. The way she frames the argument also resonates the oppressor-oppressed relationship pointed out by Butler, and from this line of thinking, I wonder what the “performativity” would fit in that may suggest ways to subvert the system. What would it mean for artist–male or female–to produce a “post-gender art” and how is it (not) different from the blurring of the lines of gender through drag? Will it have the same subversion?

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