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Transnational Histories of Children’s Media – Literary Canon Studies With a View to
the Turn to Digitality
I would agree with the author of the call for papers for this international workshop that there
is a need for more transdisciplinary, transmedial, and transnational histories of children’s
media. We are currently experiencing the advent of the digital paradigm, which, in Alan
Liu’s words, should equally spur a “new media encounter”, e.g. a re-imagining of textual and
mediated narratives and the discourses in which they have been enrolled. In the vein of
genealogy, this new media encounter could be envisaged in generous and intellectually
generating terms - as a meeting between “old” and “new”, which can throw new light on
The medium that is the focus of my scholarly attention in this presentation is children’s
literature. As Anne Lundin has argued, “[c]hildren’s literature is an intersection of two
powerful ideological positions: our ideas about childhood and our ideas about literature, ideas
often conflicted beyond our knowing” (2004: 147). This perhaps sounds simple but, in fact, it
is very complex. In short, canon studies examines the notion of children’s literature as a field
of contestation – not only historically but also in Pierre Bourdieu’s more structural terms of
there being “rules of art” governing the cultural and symbolic capital of specific expressive
I consider the notion of the “canon” to be the backdrop of the literary, e.g. literature’s
institutional and societal functions, which can, interestingly, also be studied on the medium’s
aesthetic and expressive levels. Culminating in the 20th century, in many nations children’s
literature was, for instance, “singled out” as a literature of its own – with its own type of
“single address” (Wall) that distinguished itself from the “throes of the written word” of the
modernist canon (Rose). Some would call this a step forward – others would call it a
parenthesis being questioned today. Paradoxically, the view of children’s literature as a
“secret garden” was more powerful in the 20th “century of the child” than in the 19th century
when ideas of “high” and “low” had still not been fully institutionalized and connected to
ideas of Art and cultural with a capital c.
The cultural background of “singling out”, which could then, in turn, be put to work to write
national histories of children’s literature, is described very well by Felicity Hughes, who
argues that the modernist winnowing of literature as verbal art became a shaping of literatures
that needs to be read against the grain:
“Within twenty years of the publication of “The Future of the Novel” [Henry James, 1899],
the views expressed in it were widespread, in particular the view that the serious novel is one
that children cannot read was generally accepted among writers and critics. The impact that
this exclusion has had not only on the development of children’s literature but on attitudes
towards it is still overwhelming. The segregation of adult’s and children’s literature is
rationalized, even celebrated on all sides. It has assumed the status of a fact, a piece of
knowledge of the world, that children read books in a different way and have to have special
books written for them.” (Hughes 1978: 548)
But why canon studies? And what are its contributions to, for instance, a cultural studies
paradigm? How can canon studies help us to interrogate national conceptions of children’s
media history? First, canon studies can give us a more truthful picture of the literary part of
media history – an approach to historic literature which is genealogical and contingent
instead of reproducing 20th century constructions and divisions between “high” and “low”. In
a line from the Romantic vernacular canon over the hybrid heteroglossia of the 19th century
novel (often catering to a broad and intergenerational reading audience) to the modernist
divisions (and often forgotten cross-fertilizations between art and the child) to postmodern
“reading against the grain”, the interrelations, dialogism and intersections between separated
literatures and between “high” and “low” literatures and art forms could again be highlighted.
Secondly, canon studies can help us revise literary history and the study of literature itself,
for instance, by interrogating its historiography – and thereby its exclusions of “other”
literatures. Thirdly, canon studies does not follow a “literary into cultural studies paradigm”,
though it builds upon the central insights of power and the linguistic turn. This allows it to
build further upon, yet problematize, literary studies instead of abandoning its cumulated
historic insights, which would amount to a loss of historic understanding (according to Chris
Barker a central criticism of cultural studies has been that it has abandoned the insights of
disciplines and domains, e.g. literary studies, in order to cultivate a much more easily
obtainable “meta-perspective”). Finally, the study of historically separated literatures and
other modal forms as “structural others” (Guillory) to each other would enable deeper
understandings of history, media and aesthetics and its cultural processes of shaping.
Canon studies could be argued to offer contrafactual readings of the splits of modernity on
the level of signification, which would in itself be a valuable contribution to the writing of
transnational histories of children’s media (and to its historiography). However, in order to
transcend the often national constructions and 20th century “singling out” or reproduction of
normalized conceptions it seems important to discuss some “digital” principles for current
writings of transnational histories of children’s media. In particular, the following principles
seem important to foreground:
Literary scholars have often neglected the fact that, historically, literature has usually
appeared in a book, which is a medium (equally, media studies have often seen
literature as something that is not part of media studies). In a way, “media” or
“knowledge media” becomes a central common meeting-ground for children’s
literature and other media, inasmuch as the advent of digital media highlights the
double of semiotics and materiality (cp. the dual roots of the linguistic turn in
semiotics and pragmatism). Different media complement each other in knowledge
Young people’s popular narratives today are increasingly organized as transmedial
culture, which makes it important for media scholars to work with “cross-media”
formats and subcreation.
The rise of participatory culture interrogates the knowledge system of print culture,
e.g. with children and young people increasingly becoming creative “authors”
themselves. Besides, digital culture is an intergenerational space.
As emphasized in the call for papers, national paradigms increasingly appears to be
“glocal” adaptations.
So where does this brief outline of canon studies as a more contrafactual way of working with
children’s literature leave us? And what is the importance of digitality to the development of
transnational histories of children’s media? Following a definition of “canon” as the
backdrop of the literary, we might argue, with Richard Rorty, that the study of transnational
histories of children’s media might be turned into a kind of “intellectual history”. The latter is
an analysis of contingency, which attempts to examine past concepts and conceptualisations
without being dominated by them. Ultimately, the purpose of historical analysis is to unravel
the historical contingency of all concepts. In Rorty’s words:
“Unlike historical reconstructions (…) [intellectual history] cannot stay within the vocabulary
used by a past figure. It has to ‘place’ that vocabulary in a series of vocabularies and estimate
its importance by placing it in a narrative which traces changes in vocabulary. (…) [I]t wants
to keep us aware of the fact that we are still en route – that the dramatic narrative it offers us
is to be continued by our descendants. When it is fully self-conscious it wonders whether all
the issues discussed so far may not have been part of the ‘contingent arrangements’ of earlier
times. It insists on the point that even if some of them really were necessary and inescapable,
we have no certainty about which these were.” (1984: 61)
Digitality highlights this contingency, yet commitment to history. Our readings of history
becomes a “new media encounter”.
Works Mentioned:
Guillory, John (1993), Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation.
University of Chicago Press
Hughes, Felicity (1978). “Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice”. English Literary
History, 3
Liu, Alan (2007). “Imagining the New Media Encounter”. In Ray Siemens & Susan
Schreibman (eds.) A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Blackwell
Lundin, Anne (2004), Constructing the Canon of Children’s Literature: Beyond Library
Walls and Ivory Towers. Routledge
Nielsen, Hans Jørn, Høyrup, Helene & Christensen, Hans Dam (eds., 2011), Nye
vidensmedier – kultur, læring, kommunikation [New Knowledge Media – Culture, Learning
and Communication]. Copenhagen: Samfundslitteratur
Rorty, Richard (1984). “Philosophical Historiography: Four Genres”. In Richard Rorty et al.
(eds.) Philosophy in History. Cambridge University Press
Rose, Jacqueline (1984), The Case of Peter Pan; or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction.
Wall, Barbara (2991), The Narrator’s Voice. The Dilemma of Children’s Fiction. Macmillan