Rethinking the Western Canon in the 21st Century
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The Canonicity Project is a student research project at SUNY Geneseo exploring the concept of the literary canon.

Since beginning in the Fall of 2014, the project has taken off in a couple directions with different focuses:

  1. What formal features define the canon?

    When he writes about the canon, literary critic Harold Bloom suggests that the works he sees as being in the canon are inherently better than those he has left off his list. Pondering why he included some of the works that he did, Bloom states that he has chosen the writers "for both their sublimity and their representative nature," that is because they represent a literary period, style, or place. When considering what makes these writers great Bloom returns a nonanswer:

    I have tried to confront greatness directly: to ask what makes the author and the works canonical. The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.

    Essentially, for Bloom their is little in the way of formal rules governing inclusion into the canon. Thus, we wish to learn study whether or not there are any actual formal structures that make a work more or less canonical. Can we measure the aesthetic qualities of a text through its use of formal techniques?

  2. How has the canon changed over time?

    Bloom chooses to divide the temporal structure of his canon into different ages: The Theocratic Age, The Aristocratic Age, The Democratic Age, and The Chaotic Age. He borrows these distinctions from Giambattista Vico and sees them as corresponding both to the literature as well as the general cultural history of the West. The inclusion of defined time periods leads us to question whether the quality of canonicity has itself changed over time. Are the features that make a work of the Theocratic Age canonical the same as those of the Chaotic Age?

    Furthermore, we wish to discern whether or not the beggining and end points ascribed to these ages are appropriate from a formal perspective. That is, are there legitimate formal diferences in texts from the different periods? Are there better points in time to mark as the beginning and ends of periods?

  3. What diferentiates the canon from the rest of literature?

    Building on the issues of generating a formal definition for canonicity and identifying changes to the canon over time, we also wish to more concretely than Bloom explore the differences between texts in the canon and texts existing outside of it. We feel it is an essential cultural question to consider why we choose the texts that we do for the canon. While Bloom acknowledges the arbitrariness of his selection process, he leaves much to be desired. The development of a Western canon suggests a ranking and evaluation of texts on aesthetic, formal, and cultural bases. Given that two of those three criteria are incredibly subjective, we wish to acknowledge whether canonical selections are entirely subjective or if there is a formal base for them.

  4. Can we model formal methods in literature as a dynamic system?

    Looking at formal changes to the canon over time raises the question of whether or not we can actually properly model the dynamics of literature. In particular, we would like to explore whether or not is possible to quantify the effect on subsequent texts of adding certain texts to the literary system. It is our hope that as we explore the other issues we have outlined that the solutions to this issue will become apparent and will scale as we include more and more texts.

Our Team

Who is working on the Canonicity Project?

Dr. Gillian Paku

Project Director

Dr. Gillian Paku is currenly Associate Professor of English at SUNY Geneseo. She helped to start The Canonicity Project and has served as Project Director since the Fall of 2014. Her other research focuses on long 18th-century literature, John Milton and his work, and the history of authorship.

Ben Wach

Lead Researcher

Ben is a senior English major at SUNY Geneseo. He is one of the original participants in The Canonicity Project. Ben's research lies predominantly in the space of determining canonicty and its interaction with literary theory. He is currently determining what in the history of literary theory has formed the contemporary base for determining genre.

Sean Fischer

Lead Researcher

Sean is a senior English and Math double major at SUNY Geneseo. He is one of the original participants in The Canonicity Project. His reasearch focuses are in the role and place of literary theory, conceptions of genre, the implementation of quantitative methods of literary analysis and the development of alternative strategies for teaching students how to write.

Marissa Bellusci

Research Assistant

Marissa is a sophomore English major at SUNY Geneseo. She is currently volunteering with The Canonicity Project as a research assistant. While still new to the field of literary studies, Marissa is deeply interested in contemporary poetry, especially the work of poets like Andrea Gibson.

The Canonicity Project is run by Dr. Gillian Paku, Associate Professor of English at SUNY Geneseo. Dr. Paku oversees Ben Wach and Sean Fischer, the two principle student researchers on the project. Marissa Bellusci and Melissa Whyman are currently volunteering as research assistants. Additionally, The Canonicity Project is also receiving guidance from Dr. Paul Schacht, Professor and Chair of English at SUNY Geneseo.

The Canonicity Project is not currently seeking further student researchers, but likely will next year. If you are interested, signup below for our mailing list and watch for updates!


What have we accomplished and what are we planning to do?

  • Fall 2014

    From The Beginning

    The Canonicity Project begins as a research project exploring conceptions about genres and their place in literary studies. The project turns towards the concept of literary classification and eventually utilizes its first quantitative method.

  • Spring 2015

    The Project Takes Direction

    The Canonicity Project takes firm direction by establishing clear research questions and goals. Two main paths are established: the quantitative and the theoretical. Sean and Ben present early stages of their work at the Sigma Tau Delta Convention.

  • The Future

    Where Will We Go From Here?

    The future is bright for The Canonicity Project. The team hopes to have at least initial investigations of each question completed by the end of Spring 2016.


Thoughts and reflections on the Canonicity Projects and the conepts it deals with.


Presentations given by the Canonicity Project.

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