TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Vladimir Biti (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Canon and Its Others in19th Century Croatian Literature

Marina Protrka (University of Zagreb, Croatia) 



The concepts of literature and world literature in particular, as envisaged by Goethe and then redefined by Marx and others, declare themselves to be universal, extensive and inclusive principles which overarch "national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness". Conceived around the idea of the "true progress of mankind" as well as a utopian vision of self-fulfilling human nature, these concepts are based on the universalistic Kantian aesthetics, particularly on the judgement of taste inherent to it. Instead of being universal, however, this judgement turned out to be highly distinctive in its performance and restrictive in its access to cultural capital. A distinctiveness of the distinctions made by the judgement of taste, as Bourdieu has shown, supported the existing hegemony of the social system, producing different sorts of inequalities between nations and within them, which is why some are always more equal than others. The universalistic aesthetics resulted in the hidden national, sexual, class, or race supremacies, creating colonial subordination, de-privileged individuals and groups. This text addresses the performative aspects of the self-legitimizing procedure of this universalistic aesthetics in 19th century Croatian literature, its constitution against the Western literary canon, as well as its strategies of the iterative self-institution through the implementation of the principle of exclusion/inclusion.

As a corpus of literary products that through various institutional assignments acquires an outstanding status in society, literary canon raises important aesthetical, ethical, epistemological, cultural, and other questions. First of all, the process of canon formation goes along with the process in which literary field gains its relative and, according to Pierre Bourdieu, unstable autonomy. In other words, literary canon cannot be instituted without the corresponding field, and that is why its rise and decline (or crisis) reflects analogous changes in literature as institution. Broadly speaking, as a consequence of historical, political, and economical developments, the field of cultural (literary) production emerges in the form of "the economic world reversed" (Bourdieu, 1993: 29-144), reaching in this way its own relative autonomy in which literary world and literary value are named, perceived and accepted as a form of capitalization. From that point of view, it is not surprising that, as Antoine Berman shows (Casanova, 2004: 14), the appearance of a Weltliteratur coincides with that of a Weltmarkt. But the parallelism between the economic expansion of the 1860s and the expansion of literary production does not imply direct correlation. On the contrary: the economic and the social background are apparent in the surge of cultivated audiences, but the field distances itself from the expanding market. The relative opening up of the field of cultural production effects an increase in the relative autonomy of the field: "its capacity to interpret external demands in terms of its own logic" (ibid: 55). This is also the reason why the position of the "pure" writer or artist, like that of the intellectual, constructs itself as a position of freedom - "against the 'bourgeoisie' (in the 'artist' sense) and against institutions – in particular against the state bureaucracies, academies, salons etc." (ibid: 63). This kind of institutionalization of art's autonomy through "the progressive detachment of art from real life contexts, and the correlative crystallization of a distinctive sphere of experience" (Bürger: 1984: 23) is deeply affected with Kantian notions of genius, aesthetic pleasure and judgement of aesthetic taste. Defined as "disinterested satisfaction (interesseloses Wohlgefallen)", or "the pure disinterested delight", aesthetic pleasure is based on the concept of art as "purposiveness without purpose" (Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck) (Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790) in Kant, 1996: §2: 476-477). Therefore, aesthetic judgement makes a claim to universal validity: beautiful object excites a delight that is not only disinterested but also necessary and universal. The judgement of aesthetic taste is imagined as a concept of the purposiveness of nature: it is the concept that could be perceived as "the supersensible substrate of all the subject’s faculties (unattained by any concept of understanding) and consequently in that which forms the point of reference for the harmonious accord of all our faculties of cognition" (ibid: §57: 543). Beside that, "an aesthetic idea cannot become cognition, because it is an intuition (or the imagination) for which an adequate concept can never be found. A rational idea can never become cognition, because it involves a concept (of the supersensible) for which a commensurate intuition can never be given" (ibid: 542).

The aesthetic field is therefore, despite its antinomy in definition and realization, mutually and on different levels connected with ethics. Strictly speaking, although Kant points out that "the beautiful pleases immediately (but only in reflective intuition, not, like morality, in concept" (§59: 548) and also "apart from all interest", he also claims that "pleasure in the morally good is no doubt necessarily bound up with an interest, but not with one of the kind that are antecedent to the judgment upon delight, but with one that judgment itself for the first time calls into existence" (548) - an interest that realizes itself a posteriori, as a consequence of an aesthetic judgement. Aesthetic is therefore necessary ethical, not just because "the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good" but because the aesthetic object, when experienced aesthetically, therefore free from any empirically conditioned interest of the subject, and as an object of disinterested contemplation – allows making-up of the subject which transcends particular determination. "Yet", according to Bennett (ibid: 170), "since this experience is experienced by particular determined individuals, it is thereby also able to be represented as the site and medium of a putative harmonisation of the subject's contradictory constitution". Free from any (social) heteronomy, the aesthetic (literature) is considered to be the way of improving humanity: reaching the utopian goal of true mankind.

Kant's theory of judgement as a "faculty of thinking the particular as contained in the general", according to Giorgio Agamben (2005: 39), opens up an aporetic boundary of the general (the rule) with the particular case that is to be subsumed under it. In aesthetic reflective judgement, the particular is given, but the general rule have to be found, so its logical (rational) nature is something to be gained. But, "even though Kant was perfectly aware of the aporetic nature of the problem and of the difficulty involved in concretely deciding between the two types of judgement", as Agamben points out, "the mistake here is that the relation between the particular case and the norm appears as a merely logical operation." According to him, that proves the revolutionary nature of the aesthetics which produces, especially in the modern art, the permanent state of exception as "the opening of a space in which application and norm reveal their separation and a pure force-of-law realizes (that is, applies by ceasing to apply [dis-applicando]) a norm whose application has been suspended. In this way, the impossible task of welding norm and reality together, and thereby constituting the normal sphere, is carried out in the form of the exception, that is to say, by presupposing their nexus." (ibid: 40). The state of exception therefore "marks a threshold at which logic and praxis blur with each other and a pure violence without logos claims to realize an enunciation without any real reference" which makes aesthetic experience institutionally (logically, rationally) undisciplined.

On the other side, as Schiller in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) claims, aesthetic education is assigned the role of overcoming the divided subject. This division, according to Peter Bürger, prefigures a situation in which man's lost wholeness, alienated through the division of labor, will be restored to him (Bennett 1995: 169). Therefore, aesthetics overcomes the division between the transcendental Subject (undetermined Person) and the empirical, particular, determinate forms of personhood (Persönlichkeit). Aesthetic object makes here not just an object of desire but, as Kant claims, object of disinterested contemplation that produces a person capable of overcoming its particular determinants, becoming "the site and medium of a putative harmonization of the subject's contradictory constitution" (ibid: 170). Experience of this, however temporary and provisional, harmonization between divided forms of Persönlichkeit and Person, is imagined to be accessible to everyone and "it can simultaneously be regarded as a mode of communication capable of uniting society" (ibid).

In the same way, literature, as a particular form of the aesthetic is perceived as a means of seemingly contradictory national and human unification. "Poetry is", as J. W. Goethe wrote in a letter to Count Stolberg (1827: June 11)(1), "cosmopolitan, and the more interesting the more it shows its nationality." Nations as imagined communities (B. Anderson) and their cultural capital are grounded in the perception of a broader world order which is simultaneously the point of their legitimization and the source of danger. There is no "us" without "them", although "they" are something that could overwhelm us and make us invisible. This kind of identity (individual or collective) inevitably creates its own Other, always similar enough to be the Same and different enough to permit the work of "narcissism of minor differences", as Freud once aptly called it(2). Cultural practices as forms of representation, it is broadly known, are deeply involved with such paradoxical interconnection: both the inclusion and the exclusion of the Other. Therefore, the project (process) of world literature is imagined at the same time as a way of improving national particularities and reaching universal excellence. It is not just because, as Goethe claims, "every literature dissipates within itself when it is not reinvigorated through foreign participation. What researcher into nature doesn’t rejoice at the marvelous things which he sees brought forth through refraction?" (Pizer 2000: 215) More than that, as he continues, world literature opens up a perspective of world progress: "For the nations, after they had been shaken into confusion and mutual conflict by the terrible wars [i.e. the Napoleonic Wars], could not return to their settled and independent life again without noticing that they had learned many foreign ideas and ways, which they had unconsciously adopted, and had come to feel here and there previously unrecognized spiritual and intellectual needs. Out of this arose the feeling of neighborly relations, and, instead of shutting themselves up as before, they gradually came to desire the adoption of some sort of more or less free spiritual intercourse. This movement, it is true, has lasted only a short time, but still long enough to start a considerable speculation, and to acquire from it, as one must always from any kind of foreign trade, both profit and enjoyment."

The same also holds true for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who in their Communist Manifesto (1848) describe industrial and cultural progress, i.e. the world-market, as giving "a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country".  Economical progress, therefore, destroys the old-established national industries and dislodges them by the new industries "whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations" (Marx, Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1848, from: Tucker: 1978: 476-77). As a consequence, "the intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature [Die nationale Einseitigkeit und Beschränktheit wird mehr und mehr unmöglich, und aus den vielen nationalen und lokalen Literaturen bildet sich eine Weltliteratur]". World literature, as world market, they are convinced, "by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization". Civilization, therefore, means adoption of "the bourgeois mode of production" that displaces specific national particularities, those barbarian Chinese walls that nourish "obstinate hatred of foreigners" (ibid.).

Literature in the national or world perspective is, in that way, imagined as a cultural practice guided by the principle of human union. First of all, it integrates regional, class, and sexual particularities, creating a unified body of nation; furthermore, it overrides "national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness" inspired by utopian project of true and egalitarian mankind. But, as we know, this also means – both in national and world-wide case – that a great number of differences will be subsumed or neglected and new inequalities produced. In actuality, aesthetic experience, as imagined by Schiller and others, remained a potential force beyond the reach of a "whole range of specific, empirically determined forms of human individuality" (Benett, ibid). Furthermore, its humanistic perspective failed in its historical implementation - the concept of world literature did not provide a successful surpassing of particular national barriers but created new rifts between them. Instead of the imagined equality of different cultures and their representation through national literary canons, the world literary Parnassus opened up perspectives of isolation, subordination and cultural domination – imperialism of the great, representative Culture. It is not, therefore, surprising, as Pascal Casanova (2005: 40) shows, "that Goethe elaborated the notion of Weltliteratur precisely at the moment of Germany's entry into the international literary space". He was particularly aware of "competitive nature and the paradoxical unity" that results from that perspective. Supporting this, in the broader perspective opened by the vision of "the progress of the human race" and "the further prospects for world and human relationships", he explicitly writes "I am convinced a universal world literature is in the process of being constituted, in which an honorable role is reserved for us Germans. All nations are paying attention to us; they praise and criticize, accept and reject, imitate and distort, understand or misunderstand us and open or close their hearts to our concerns. We must accept this with equanimity because it is of great value to us" (Gearey, 1986: 225).

National and "world" literary histories as a privileged mode of establishment of literary and cultural values reflect the prevalent symbolic order producing inequalities. As a case in point, it is interesting to see how the German historiographer Gustav Karples, in his Allgemeine Geschichte der Litteratur: von ihren Anfängen bis auf die Gegenwart (Berlin: Grote, 1890-1892), presents the Slavic, and especially the Croatian literature. German scholar, as the Croatian literary critic Milivoj Šrepel observes, desultorily and incorrectly reviews the recent Croatian literary production demonstrating a complete ignorance of elementary facts previously presented in the famous Pypin and Spasovič's History of Slavic Literatures(3), translated into German almost a decade earlier. In his review of this controversial book, Šrepel (1892: 43-46) concludes: "Perhaps the writer presumed that even these few words he devoted to the "barbarian" Croatian literature have been too much. Now, there is nothing left for us to do but kneel down before the honorable German who glanced at us, miserable worms, and kiss his kind hand!"

Both Goethe and Karples here reflect an imperialistic impetus of their culture whereas Šrepel responds from the margins. The difference in their views betrays how an ostensibly universal human project actually spawns cultural segregation. On the other hand, these more or less colonized minority groups or peoples developed different sorts of answers to the dominant hegemony. The kind of insulted answer that we find in Šrepel's review is not the most common one. Rather, others at firsthand accept and reproduce their own oriental (colonial) position only to create resistance later on. Ljudevit Gaj proclaims the inferiority of "our young Slavic literature in its modest morning dress" ("mlade naše slavenske literature u prostom svojem jutarnjom odělu", "Danica ilirska", II/1836: 194-195) when compared to her skilled Western sister who had much time to adorn herself.  We are small and poor; all the others, especially Germains, have gone further, claims Vladimir Mažuranić (1870: 696-701) – while we are asleep. Similarly to famous Slavist Vatroslav Jagić, he also stresses that, contrary to Goethe or Marx, we have to build strong walls against the hegemony of those big and powerful nations. One of the strongest walls is imagined to be an authentic national literature and its canon, presented by Franjo Marković (1869: 760-771), the founding father of Croatian academic criticism, as "our voice in the concert of all nations".

Croatian literary canon is, therefore, constructed from the position of cultural and political marginality: positing itself as a bulwark (outer wall) or a bridge between the East and the West. Count Janko Drašković writes: "We lay down in the midst of Europe, threatened by both the East and the West: the first threatens us with darkness, the second with light…" ("Mi usried Europi ležimo, nama se prieti istok i zapad, on tamnotom, ov preizbistrenjem…") Thus, between the western light and the eastern darkness, Croatian literary canon formed a proper cultural penumbra, a gray zone which accepts, resists and repeatedly disperses its own hegemonic discursive order(4). Here as there, inside as in the outside, culture produces its walls that, based on normative power, create and unequally divide the symbolic capital. In other words, national literary canon, like the canon of world literature, produces the whole panoply of discriminatory practices.

First of all, national literature subsumes, assimilates or reduces different sorts of regional diversities. They either become into the part of the great homogeneous national narrative, or are rejected as unworthy of history, useless or reactionary, as it is demonstrated in different polemical discourses, one of them started between the dominant literary journal "Danica ilirska" and the regional "Zora Dalmatinska".

Secondly, the dominant aesthetic principle that governs the formation of the field of art, as it is defined by Kant’s "purposiveness without purpose", introduces evaluations discriminative of women, the uneducated and young people. They are considered to be immature and incapable of making reasonable decisions. Carefully kept away from temptation and intoxication with bad ("trivial", second class) literature, they should also be cultivated by means of proper literary values. These groups, usually varied in themselves, become the excluded Other in their own culture. Because of their class, education, sex or age - they are considered aesthetically incompetent, passive and in need of reasonable guidance.

This kind of distinction is part of a strategy used by the dominant culture in which authority and power are usually usurped by the "dead white male". "The sexless genius", as imagined by V. Mažuranić (1871: 239), or the widely accepted universality of the judgement of pure taste appears to have been the way to broaden the scale of inequalities inscribed into the patriarchal system of values. The authority of authorship as well as the right to speak in public is reserved for educated males. One of the prominent, but not most liberal, Croatian writers, Adolfo Veber Tkalčević in his Patriotic thoughts (Domorodne misli, 1885-1890: 185) speaks exaltedly of man's (his fellow brother's) power to write and to fertilize national (literary) field and also the "harts of our beauties, who will reward us with pearls and jewels, our dear offspring, that is the bedrock of our nation's temple."

The role of the mother, here assigned to women, confines their activities to the private sphere, but also places them, along with other excluded groups, on the margins. This exclusion includes the rejection of all their inherent practices: popular culture, romance novels and similar production that remains outside the scope of proper aesthetic values. They are intruders in the dominant culture and its canon, threat and temptation for those groups that are the weakest link in society. The dominant culture, as we can see, rests on binary oppositions: men/women, culture/nature, active/passive, reason/feelings etc. Similarly, "good" literature, considered being aesthetically worthy, complex, authentic, and "true", is imagined to be the way of gaining personal and national prosperity. On the other hand, "bad", "trivial" literature is believed to be aesthetically poor, faulty in its presentation of values, characters and plots and therefore dangerous in raising false expectations; it drives its readership to identify illusions as reality. Aspects of these bovarian and quixotic collisions became a favorite theme throughout 19th century Croatian literature - from Veber's Zagrepkinja (The Lady of Zagreb), to August Šenoa's Comrade Lovro, Josip Kozarac's Mira Kodolićeva or IvoVojnović'sMara in Geranium. They provided an opportunity to examine the "real" and the "false", the valuable and the trivial – to define and legitimize the desirable practices of writing and reading.

Ideology doesn’t exclude aesthetics nor does the aesthetical perspective foreclose ideological consequences. Objective and universal aesthetic principle, as every other principle by itself, introduces hierarchical relations - different subjective positions related to the normative power of the law. But that power, as Michel Foucault (1978:121-122) showed, isn't linear nor ideologically, politically or economically controlled – it is rather omnipresent and undisciplined. Contrary to the strictly ideologically interpreted dynamics of power as "a general system of domination exercised by one element or one group over another" whose effects traverse the entire social body, he indicates that the domain of power is in its multiple relations. Despite its intention to form a chain or system of relations of force, crystallized in the mechanisms of the state, in the formulation of the law and in broadly visible social hegemonies, the condition of possibility of power, as Foucault (ibid.) claims, "should not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique space of sovereignty". Instead, it should be perceived as a local and unstable, although incessantly induced. There is no single point or unity in the production of power - its omnipresence is exercised in every relation, in multiple directions that slip out of usual perception of dominant and dominated.

Therefore, power is not an institution, nor a structure, nor a possession – but the name we give to a complex strategic situation in a particular society. Pure force-of-law, as Agamben demonstrates, always suspends its application. In this particular case, those excluded and rejected Others, the margin and gray zone turned out to be the constitutive center of the dominant Self. The maternal figure reconfigures itself by disrupting the established power structures; the rejected stone becomes the grounding one(5). As a matter of fact, women authors, "women's scribblings", as well as the broadly imagined readership remain the most disturbing elements in the legitimization of the dominant culture and its literary canon. Elusive reading practices, those innumerable critically undisciplined "uses of literacy" constantly destabilize the institutional ordering within the field. The real reader with his or her multiple identities remains beyond the reach of institutional discipline: incoherent, uncoordinated but constantly subversive.






1 Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. John Gearey. Goethe’s Collected Works, Vol. 3. New York: Suhrkamp, 1986.  227.
2 S. Freud: Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. and ed. James Strachey.  Intro. Peter Gay.  New York: Norton, 1961: 72.
3 Aleksandar Nikolajevič Pypin and Vladimir Danilovič Spasovič: Istorija slavjanskih literatur. Peterburg 1879; Geschichte der slavischen Literaturen. Nach der zweiten Auflage aus dem Russischen übertragen von Traugott Pech, Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1883-1884.
4 This perspective is not culturally specific nor limited on the literary canon formation; it is rather a part of broader national imagination that presents itself as a form of surveillance in particular geopolitical conditions. Even before becoming nations, those communities, to put it with Benedict Anderson, imagined themselves as being the bulwark of Christianity (antemurale christianitatis) which at the same time nourished their orientalism, occidentalism, and balkanism.
Psalms: 118,22. King James Bible: "The stone which the builders refused (World English Bible: rejected ) is become the head stone of the corner." (Last Access: 06.04.2010)

5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups| Groupes de sections

TRANS   Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Marina Protrka: Canon and Its Others in19th Century Croatian Literature - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

Webmeister: Gerald Mach     last change: 2010-04-06