Critique of the canon from a postcolonial perspective ‘Dark’ Africa

World literature – from whose perspective?
World literature – from whose perspective? | Photo (detail): Andrea Warnecke © picture alliance / dpa Themendienst

People rarely criticise the canon in order to put an end to it. You see, the orientation function that canons have is well established in both cultural and institutional terms: this applies both to the canon of education and the canon of subject matter. 

By Andrea Geier

In the context of critique of the canon, the idea of not having canons is the most widespread of approaches in postcolonial studies in which there is such a fundamentally power-critical perspective. One alternative proposal is to replace it with a concept of ‘world literature’, which can equally well refer to a selection of authors and works worthy of passing down and generally typical of all ages and cultural groups, a sort of best of the national literatures – or to a literature of globalisation and ‘world citizenship’, which is characterised by the interest in cultural exchange and encounter.


In view of Goethe’s concept of world literature however, German academics are aware that in this respect decolonialisation needs to be carried out, in the same way as it has to be undertaken for national canons: in this context, decolonialisation means realising that historical power hierarchies have shaped the perception of valuable literature, and that because of this Western or Eurocentric ideals still apply with regard to the choice and value attributed to texts. The latter statement also applies to ideas such as ‘global citizen’. Postcolonial scholars are especially aware that the canon as an organisational system is inevitably becoming more stable in its validity as a result of the ongoing critical efforts, and that restructuring can be only partially implemented and requires time.

The significance of colonialism has long been misunderstood

It’s only since the mid-nineties that postcolonial studies have become a mainstream aspect of German studies in countries where German is spoken. The reason behind this delay is that the significance of colonialism in Germany has long been misunderstood altogether. So postcolonial perspectives can tie in with the preparatory work of other canon critiques – in particular the feminist context, where the concept of the canon has been changed: the process of canonisation nowadays is no longer considered to be an almost organic development, in which texts accumulate that are of both aesthetic and pedagogic value, but more of an interpretative treatment of tradition.

The term ‘canon’ is understood as a disputed social system in which values are attributed to texts according to criteria that are neither neutral nor historically stable. This means that the focus is on historical and current canon dynamics, as well as the social acceptance and plurality of canons. The motto is: never stop inspecting the canon critically! Feminist and postcolonial critiques of the canon are predestined for this fate, because they are deemed to be epistemological approaches.

Little interest in colonial crossovers

Unlike Anglo-American critique of the canon, where they have been working on revising the canon for a long time, and have been examining the literature of national minorities as well as transnational literature areas formed as a consequence of colonialism in reference to inclusion and exclusion mechanisms, the German postcolonial perspective has so far not been particularly interested in the discovery of new authors, for instance from areas that used to be German colonies. However different variants of (internal) crossovers with a colonial history, for instance Afro-German literature, or German language literature in other national spaces, have been receiving more attention recently thanks to their interaction with research into migrant literature and the literature of globalisation.

‘Dark’ Africa

The focus of postcolonial critique of the canon is the work on the canon of interpretation – a collection of exemplary interpretations of a text that defines its meanings and values – and a (post)colonial aesthetic. It looks at the way literature contributes to the creation of collective images of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’: historically this refers to the idea of nations, the production of knowledge about the ‘others’ and the ‘other’ – the construction of the inter/intra-social ‘foreigner’; Africa as a colonial place of yearning – as well as transcultural (literary) relations.
  • The Chinese writer Mo Yan wins the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. This is the first time that the most important literary award in the world - which Alfred Nobel in his will wanted to be given to the “most worthy” - has gone to an author who lives and works in China. So far, the world's most widely spoken language has won only two Nobel Prizes, with English-speaking writers winning most often. 86 times the Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to Europe, more than twice as often as to all other continents combined. China's first Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian had already lived in exile in France for 13 years at the time of the award ceremony in 2000. Photo: ChinaFotoPress/MAXPPP © dpa
    The Chinese writer Mo Yan wins the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. This is the first time that the most important literary award in the world - which Alfred Nobel in his will wanted to be given to the “most worthy” - has gone to an author who lives and works in China. So far, the world's most widely spoken language has won only two Nobel Prizes, with English-speaking writers winning most often. 86 times the Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to Europe, more than twice as often as to all other continents combined. China's first Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian had already lived in exile in France for 13 years at the time of the award ceremony in 2000.
  • A bestseller: the 50 volume library of world literature of the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Selected by the newspaper's feature editors under the direction of Dieter Wunderlich. Which authors were chosen? Photo: Peter Endig © ZB - Fotoreport
    A bestseller: the 50 volume library of world literature of the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Selected by the newspaper's feature editors under the direction of Dieter Wunderlich. Which authors were chosen?
  • The model Waris Dirie signs her book “Black woman, white country”. In it she tells about her life in her new, white homeland and about her longing for Africa. Photo: Jens Kalaene © dpa
    The model Waris Dirie signs her book “Black woman, white country”. In it she tells about her life in her new, white homeland and about her longing for Africa.
  • Sellers advertise their wares or what is left of them during the last days of the Cairo Book Fair every year, recorded in 2016, with more than 800 Arab publishers presenting their new publications alongside numerous European publishers. European publishers often enrich the Fair with Arabic translations of their publications, thus making Western literature better known in the Arab world. The Cairo International Book Fair is one of the largest literature fairs in the world, the largest and oldest in the Arab world, and attracts around two million trade visitors every year. Photo: Matthias Tödt © picture alliance/dpa-Zentralbild
    Sellers advertise their wares or what is left of them during the last days of the Cairo Book Fair every year, recorded in 2016, with more than 800 Arab publishers presenting their new publications alongside numerous European publishers. European publishers often enrich the Fair with Arabic translations of their publications, thus making Western literature better known in the Arab world. The Cairo International Book Fair is one of the largest literature fairs in the world, the largest and oldest in the Arab world, and attracts around two million trade visitors every year.
  • Is the book “Pippi Longstocking” racist? Yes, says Congolese Kaisa Ilung, who has lived in Germany for more than two decades. Because Pippi calls her father “Negro King”. At the time the book was written, “Negro” was a colloquial term. The publishing house Friedrich Oetinger deleted the words “Neger” and “Gypsy” from Astrid Lindgren's work in 2009 and now calls Pippi's father the “South Sea King”. As a member of the Integration Council in Bonn, Ilung succeeded in ensuring that the old editions in libraries and schools were finally exchanged for the new ones. Photo: Barbara Frommann © dpa
    Is the book “Pippi Longstocking” racist? Yes, says Congolese Kaisa Ilung, who has lived in Germany for more than two decades. Because Pippi calls her father “Negro King”. At the time the book was written, “Negro” was a colloquial term. The publishing house Friedrich Oetinger deleted the words “Neger” and “Gypsy” from Astrid Lindgren's work in 2009 and now calls Pippi's father the “South Sea King”. As a member of the Integration Council in Bonn, Ilung succeeded in ensuring that the old editions in libraries and schools were finally exchanged for the new ones.
At the heart of this are the aesthetic processes with which thought patterns of difference and the associated hierarchies and evaluation perspectives – for instance the ‘light’ of enlightenment or ‘dark’ Africa; exoticisation/racism – are influenced, treated critically and/or are changed, specifically in precolonial, colonial and postcolonial relationships, as well as in the literature of globalisation.


One aspect of this is the need to map out the (post)colonial aesthetics, in other words the aesthetic processes of criticism, ambivalence and hybridity, on the other hand particularly canonised texts are subjected to critical re-examination. In this way, the practice and traditions of interpretation are reflected.

Looking at the cultural archive from a new angle

In the event of (colonial) racist thought patterns, there are certainly no calls for such texts to be removed from the canon. Since we have moved away from the idea that the canon should contain ‘exemplary’ texts, it is in fact preferable for these texts to be given a new status in the cultural memory bank: as powerful works in which developments relating to the history of mentality are illustrated in a way that is historically perceived to be representative.

So postcolonial perspectives are aiming for a refocusing of the culture archive in the context of orientation towards cultural studies. Ethics and aesthetics are neither played off against each other, nor are they given absolute importance, instead the focus shifts onto the cultural functions of aesthetics for a society’s processes of self-understanding.