Canon Politics

 “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go”

That’s a chant from the 1980s. Student protests on California campuses (at Stanford, most famously) brought national attention to the problems of Euro-centric bias in the literary canon, precipitating radical shifts in curriculum design. I’ve been thinking about the historical significance of that moment for a number of reasons. There have various cultural, political and economic shifts since the 1980s, and yet some challenges remain similar to the ones those Stanford students faced.

Here I muse – and invite your thoughts — on cross-cultural shifts, historical shifts, and challenges of canon-formation as the sites of canon-struggles migrate beyond the literary arenas of the 1980s protests.

Time Travel

Times have changed, and the victories of multiculturalism sometimes return to bite us from behind. I am enormously grateful for the sea-change from Eurocentric to multicultural, from Dead White Male readings lists to global voices. Yet, the ways in which capitalist social relations co-opted and reworked the politics of identity through the 1990s has left many progressives perplexed. Add up the decline of post-War liberalism, the rise of neo-liberalism, and the time-delayed travel of the US multicultural wave to European academies, and you understand from whence cometh those myriad lefty critiques of the university and of the futility of postcolonialism.


Literary Loss

It seemed as if, for a century and a half, we were fighting the legacy of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s infamous claim that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

A New York Times reviewer recalls the canon wars:

“Today it’s generally agreed that the multiculturalists won the canon wars. Reading lists were broadened to include more works by women and minority writers, and most scholars consider that a positive development. Yet 20 years later, there’s a more complicated sense of the costs and benefits of those transformations. Here, the lines aren’t drawn between right and left in the traditional political sense, but between those who defend the idea of a distinct body of knowledge and texts that students should master and those who focus more on modes of inquiry and interpretation.”

While multiculturalists finally decisively won a war in the 1980s, it seemed that few were prepared for the new global consensus that was already building at the time, and which now shapes the economics of educational profit and student debt: the discourse on risk, which suggests that choosing majors in the arts and humanities, being an unwise investment toward future income opportunities, ought to entail more expensive debt. Incentives towards majors in science, technology, engineering and medicine are marketed as a means of protecting students from rash decisions and future debt. It doesn’t take a lot of math to see how the humanities and arts might soon, by this logic, become once again the playing ground of the elite, schooling only those who can afford not to worry about future salaries.



The Humanities are no longer campuses’ ground zero for democratic debate and multicultural representativeness. Even as Arts and Humanities scholars are reshaping curricula to respond adequately to the demands of the canon wars, their student demographics have already moved away from the characteristics of populations forged of Cold War liberalism.

It falls once again to the sciences (as it did in the seventeenth and eighteenth century), to become the ground for debate about what methods might be followed by rational, freedom-loving, anti-clerical, democratic seekers after the truth. What kinds of canon-shifts are happening, or should happen, in the areas collectively referenced as STEM? (STEM, for which funding is likely to grow rather than shrink over the next decades, refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine.) How are these happening differently in Europe and the Global South?

The question about multiculturalism and STEM is not reducible to one about possible diffusion of “non-western perspectives” from the literary canon to the scientific one. Although many in the emerging area of techno-science policy and interdisciplinary curriculum have experimented with creative ways of teaching “cultural sensitivity” and “global diversity” to technophiles and geeks, the challenge is more akin to the essential tension that Thomas Kuhn laid out: the tension between normal science and paradigm-based puzzle-solving on the one hand, which can be enormously powerful both intellectually and instrumentally, and, on the other, the extraordinary thinking that precipitates revolutionary shifts in science. While Kuhn’s models have been critiqued and modified by historians and philosophers of science, his insights into the nature of science teaching have not been fully explored by the emerging discourses of curriculum re-design in the STEM and allied fields.

In part, this is because many of us in STS and STEM-allied fields do not read deeply enough in the extensive critique of institutional forms and disciplinary structures that research in the Humanities has produced over the last two decades. As Roderick Ferguson points out, academia now manages difference through (inter)disciplinary trends, a process deeply connected to the shifts in economy and governance that we shorthandedly refer to as neo-liberalism. Ferguson’s most recent book, The Reorder of Things, shows how the academy and its institutional power are linked to education’s place in US geopolitics; we have “placed social differences in the realm of calculation and recalibrated power/knowledge as an agent of social life.” (Ferguson 2012, 34)


Collective Curricular Conversations

What would the canon wars look like in STEM and STS fields today? How do the global south’s histores of science and technology impinge on the current status of technoscience in Europe and North America? What are the politics of the move to make “postcolonial STS” speak to these unspoken tensions?

I’m often asked to provide a canonical list of readings. I get this request from various directions: earnest students seeking to round out their exam reading lists; well-meaning instructors trying to add a week of global readings to their US-focused curricula; public intellectuals trying to get a read on the current debates. It seems to me that the provision of a list of readings would simply kick a ball down the road, possibly exacerbating the mix-and-stir modes in which many of us devise curricula.

It’s not that I dislike lists, nor that I am loath to share them. On the contrary; I love the explosion of lists and curricula that one can find on the web now; I love stumbling on rich curricular conversations in disciplinary listserves and teaching-oriented journals. I make, collect, and re-mix lists constantly, and I share them promiscuously. But there’s something going on at the intersection of science, technology, and society that I think calls for some closer inspection.

I’ve been thinking about what it might mean to return to the stakes of that post-Kuhnian moment in which models of science and technology were engaged from many sides – with real-world stakes on the science, policy, and humanist angles. It wasn’t a model historical moment by any means; Cold War politics and scientific arrogance prevented a broader diffusion of the potentially radical implications of the conversation; misunderstandings between scientists, historians, and humanists were endemic. It was a moment in which more radical voices than Kuhn’s surfaced briefly (such as Feyerabend  and Fleck)  but did not become the source of any significantly different STS research programs. So going back to this moment is only a momentary gedanken experiment. I’m not really advocating going backwards in time. I’m using the possibilities of that moment as a reminder that the task remains. Intellectuals are constantly faced with (and are continually evading) the challenge of finding vocabularies and thematics that make sense across these persistent disciplinary divides; that spark arguments with stakes in the world that aren’t only about the neo-liberal governance of difference and the conversion of diversity into profits.

What I’m seeing the need for as a first step in the conversation about ‘reading lists’ is some set of issues and practices that might make the political, economic, and cultural stakes of this moment come alive for us, now. As the student protests at Stanford in the 1980s showed, curriculum design is a political, public matter. Perhaps our Alan Bloom moment has already happened: the Sokal hoax made headlines in the mid 1990s, bringing STS to the public. But we need better public conversations, and public intellectuals who seek to do more than score points against academic rivals. How might we form more productive collective conversations on STEM-affiliated curricula and canons? And how do we make these conversations transnationally engaged, in ways that don’t reproduce historical forms of privilege in conversations across post-, neo- and de-colonial movements?


Culture Clash

I’ve been spending time in universities outside the US, and often hear similar concerns about canon, voiced most commonly by ‘minority’-identified researchers in various cultures. In the absence of a persistent social movement, however, curriculum change has not swept any other academic system in a similarly dramatic way, as far as I can tell. My most recent context for comparison is Germany. The German academic system seems rather feudal/hierarchical in its intellectual and bureaucractic structures, so change has been slow. Although there are, of course, pockets of radicals, and groups of people who read widely in “non-western” traditions, most European intellectuals seem to be schooled largely in a “western” canon. There is a significant increase in the amount of European money being channeled to something called “postcolonial studies”, but it seems to flow toward flashy conferences with high travel and hotel costs, rather than being directed towards any systematic transformation of the curriculum for undergraduate instruction and post-graduate research. My other context for comparison is India – where I’ve watched the educational scene changing significantly, but not radically enough, over the last quarter century. In some ways an obvious site for the growth of Humanities along non-canonical paths, India is home to pockets of intriguing experiments in alternative institutional arrangements for thought/praxis, but there have been no humanities-equivalents of the grand state-led institution-building initiatives that so successfully built science- and technology-oriented institutes in the middle of the 20th century.

In other words, I don’t find much cause for celebration in academic conversations about canon-formation and reading lists either inside or outside the US academy. But unlike the US, Europe and Asia are putting money into academic research programs. Their story doesn’t make me overly optimistic, though; the forms of investment in academic research seem tailored to rather unimaginative models of what industry will need in some mythical technological future.

Why raise the global, then? I’m guessing the stakes of this conversation become more complex and urgent as we globalize its scope. The gains we made in the second half of the 20th century are too precious to give away. The academy is being purged of radical hopes and designs. And our reading lists can help or hinder that process. Even as capital seeks new ways of monetizing academic research, most of us in academia are burying our heads in the sand and missing opportunities for engagement not merely across academic cultures, but beyond academic fortresses and with shifting publics and politics.


No Reading Lists without Collective Conversations? No justice, no peace.

In my dreams, every request for a reading list should come with a willingness to engage in difficult conversations about history, politics, the academy, and the public.

We predictably open our scholarly monographs with maps of the scholarly conversations of which we are a part. But the conversations I am imagining here are broader and more difficult still than those (and I don’t mean to disparage or minimize the hard and worthwhile work that is often entailed in being part of scholarly conversations). How might we broaden the frames of the “conversations” we are already trained in forging?


What is a Canon and At What Do We Point It?

I haven’t been able to think through these questions individually; I’ve always turned to collectives.  I draw inspiration from friends who are already thinking about this question with no small degree of commitment and energy.

Norma Mollers  recently wrote:

I wish that the conversation about curricula would include discussion of hard questions among a range of different people (by this I mean not

only academics from the humanities and social sciences), such as “do we actually want a liberal arts education?”; “who should we teach?”; “who should be able to get an education; and who can actually get one?” among other things. Isn’t that what turns the canon into a struggle, because what’s at stake is not some canonical “view from nowhere”, but the configuration of who is teaching what to whom (real people and real problems).

And Lilly Irani suggests this provocative To-Do list:

– How do we become parts of more extensive networks of struggle over the shape of technoscientific futures?

– What functions might canonical curricula have now? Warnings of failure? Archives of inspiration and hope? Tactical toolboxes?

– What if STEM students had to learn the history of computers as a history of labor?

– What would computer science look like if every student had to learn a history of work automation and labor struggles through which it was forged?

Inspired by private conversations with Lilly and Norma and others, as they’ve worked through their own canon-challenges, I’m making this post public in the hope that it might be the beginning of a broader engagement with the need for “reading lists,” and the future politics of canon-formation in science- and technology-related fields. This means thinking not only about scholarly content, but political processes, economic forces, and social forms. It means not only about what we read, teach, and learn, but opening the conversation to challenges about who gets to read, who wants to teach, and how we all come to learn.



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4 Responses
  1. Kavita says:

    A footnote: even as I call for collaboration and conversation, I think we need to remind ourselves of the need to interrogate the role of these practices in the new workplace; see, for example, this cautionary note: ““Collaboration”, therefore, is decentralizing, efficient, and (seemingly) anti-hierarchical. CEOs and graduate trainees, producers and consumers, Uber passengers and AirBnB hosts – all get caught in the feeling they are partners in a shared, lateral enterprise. The problem of labour is addressed by scattering it across isolated nodes in constantly shifting, interlinked networks – the “hotdesked” business, the internet, the atomised Uber drivers in any major city. Thus it renders work liminal, intangible, and easily expendable.”

  2. Anil Menon says:

    Interesting thoughts, Kavita. In a sense, any canon is like a slice of Swiss cheese. The holes become the characteristic of the whole.

    Regarding Itty’s comment– I remember reading this paper by Shiv Visvanathan where he compared science to the jamun fruit. Like the jamun, science also leaves a deep imprint on everything it touched. But jamun’s best taken with a pinch of salt. Visvanathan thought STS had to be that pinch of salt. He was joking, but perhaps it explains why so many analyses end up being critiques. For example, it’s far easier to critique neo-liberalism than to point to any viable alternative. Ditto for establishment science. What’s the alternative to labs, research papers, citations and the repeatable experiment? Why should modern physics textbooks care about the rhizome? Perhaps if a critique is to be useful, it also needs to speculate on the details of realizable alternatives. Validation occurs when some of these alternatives actually come to be. So how about an STS that gives speculation a central role?

    I’m not referring to conceptual frameworks like, say, Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. Perhaps we have far too many conceptual frameworks. I think I’m more interested in getting a sense of how doing a science and tech free of the critique’s criticisms would be like. If radical feminism is, say, a “caricature of the appropriating, incorporating, totalizing tendencies of Western theories of identity grounding action”, well, what sort of world would support a non-caricature? What are its living and working arrangements? How would this non-caricature find a mate? Is this alternate world concrete enough to hand to some bright, sharp-toothed niece and say: well, go build it, dammit. Such an STS wouldn’t be salt; it would be more like molecular gastronomy.

  3. Lilly says:

    I will say that STS needs to account for what has historically counted as science or technology itself. This is a positive contribution we can point to at edges of STS. Civilizing Natures offers much to think about here, with science being that knowledge that could be mobile to produce value. Steven Shapin’s work on technicians offers hints. Itty Abraham’s work on postcolonial science studies talks about the way science has been a myth in Indian nation building. Oldenziel’s Making Technology Masculine is great on the history of technology as a concept. How has what seemed like “technology” shaped imaginaries and resource allocations for development? (Julia Elyachar’s work on phatic infrastructures implicitly tackles this question.)

  4. Itty says:

    To Challenge or to Intervene?
    A very brief reaction to this thoughtful comment. We are always asking questions, critiquing the old boys, wondering how they can be so clueless, etc., etc.; most recently, e.g., John Law’s introduction in EASTS, that gave permission to an STS that took East Asian cases as normal… Enough already. Why don’t we put out more programmatic statements that lay down a different Law? Instead of telling people whats wrong with their stuff, lets tell them whats right with ours.