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Essential for whom? Canon creation and reflection


What kind of texts do we read and what kind of films do we watch together with our students to familiarise them with film history and analysis? Canon creation – a corpus of films and texts recognized as particularly valuable and therefore worthy of transmission – lies at the core of teaching film history. But it is also a highly debated issue because of its many normalisations and exclusions. Who decides what should be canonical and what should not? What consequences does this have for the field of research and the discipline? What knowledge becomes part of the students' subject socialisation? Who recognises themselves in the canonised films, and who does not? Reflecting established film canons, and recognising and looking at – until now – marginalised film history(s), would appear to be crucial if we aim to diversify our curriculum.

One of the foundational texts in the field of canon critique and reflection is the book Unthinking Eurocentrism by Shohat and Stam, first published in 1994. Assuming that early film and film history are deeply interwoven with imperialism and colonialism (the first major film productions were French, English, American and German) along with nationalism, psychology and consumer society, Shoat’s and Stam’s aim is to decolonize media studies through a “polycentric” approach while analysing issues such as the myth of the West, the legacy of colonialism, postcolonial hybridity, gender and rescue fantasies, the racial politics of casting and the aporias of stereotype analysis, to name just a few. Key questions are: For whom and by whom is art constructed, and in conjunction with which ideologies and discourses? Whose stories are told and by whom? How are they manufactured, disseminated and received? What are the structural mechanisms of the film and media industry? Who controls production, distribution and exhibition? Who is speaking and who is imagined as listening? Who is watching? What social desires are mobilized by the film? The book also offers a wide range of alternative films and texts that can be used to “multiculturalize” film and media studies.

The authors of the anthology A Canon of Our Own? Kanonkritik und Kanonbildung in den Gender Studies (Bidwell-Steiner & Wozonig, 2006) negotiate questions of canon formation with a focus on the category of gender. First, disciplines with a long tradition of canon formation have their say. Following this, transitional processes from established to newly formed canons are discussed. In addition to the question of what belongs to the canon, the reflection on who determines what needs to be in the canon and what it means to follow and confirm a canon is in focus. Canon is thereby defined as a space to be negotiated. In particular, Marlen Bidwell-Steiner's (2006) contribution in “Kanonkritik zwischen Herrschaftsraum und geschütztem Raum” lends itself as a foundational text. Bidwell-Steiner understands the canon as an instrument of order and power that enables empowerment and participation. She argues for a revision of canonical texts via the question of how certain texts made their way into the canon to begin with. Thus, each canon should reflect on its own “madeness” and remain open to new texts. Bidwell-Steiner proposes the following steps for a revision of the canon: 1) inclusion of marginalized groups; 2) making constructedness visible; and 3) modification of the canon. Complementing this, in her text in the same volume, “Shakespeares Schwestern, Medusen oder “Ich ohne Geschlecht”? Zu weiblichem Schreiben, Kanon und feministischer Literaturwissenschaft”, Christa Binswanger (2006) points to the importance of historical analysis, social contextualization, and the consideration of a wide variety of narratives and genres in order to reflect on the respective canons (and the absence of women in them) in various disciplines. She emphasizes that each selection of texts (or films) is shaped by one's educational biography, academic background and personal preferences. Accordingly, the most important canon functions can be described as: the legitimation of values, identity formation and orientation.

The importance of one’s own educational biography, academic background and personal preferences is also highlighted in the so-called manifesto (In General) Towards a More Empathetic Cinephilia, by film critic and festival programmer Anuj Malhotra (2020). In his text, Malhotra tries to set certain standards of quality for a cinephilia which is: a) conducted by a person at his or her own behest; and b) organised as an operation in culture by society as a whole. Before he does so, he reflects on contemporary “global cinephilia”, which for him is a euphemism masking a global audience for Western cinephilia. He describes global cinephilia as a system governed by rituals of access, acquisition, accumulation and influence which radiates through the ecosystem of film festivals, the journalists and critics who report on them, the publications they represent, the universities that subscribe to them and the museums or archives that store them for later use. He claims that the cinephile-regimes in metropolitan North America and Western Europe continue to determine a matrix of concerns, agendas and tenor for the rest of the world, unable to differentiate between their own history and other histories in the world. In frustration, he proposes a new regime of cinephilia, one: a) that seeks to replace an older version of cinephilia (icons, canons, anti-canons, the formulation of lists, festival coverage etc.) without the accompanying admission of the streams of privilege; b) whose efficiency is established by how it achieves the conditions for relinquishment of control and its transfer; c) whose quality lies in not knowing but being confused and for that wanting to know more, reaching out, seeking alliances and allies, asking, communicating; d) that will encourage groups, collectives, communities and not individual titans, giants, icons etc.; e) that is not based on the centralization of power but the destabilization of it; f) that seeks an active demystification of cinephilia itself; g) that will shift from what we do to why we do it – from a conception of culture that is sentimental and glorious to one that is analytical and material; h) that will allow local communities to establish their own models of cinephilia and therefore allow the emergence of a variety of cinephilias; i) that will allow a diffusion of expertise and a reclamation of the common ground of curiosity itself. For a manifesto, it ends surprisingly modestly: “The cinephilia I practice should allow me to take care, be gentle, embrace emotion, use irony sparingly, lessen an absorption with self; and finally, be nice.”


Bidwell-Steiner, M. “Kanonkritik zwischen Herrschaftsraum und geschütztem Raum”. In M. Bidwell-Steiner and K. S. Wozonig (Eds.)  A Canon of Our Own? Kanonkritik und Kanonbildung in den Gender Studies (pp. 35–41). StudienVerlag.

Bidwell-Steiner, M. & Wozonig, K. S. (2006). A Canon of Our Own? Kanonkritik und Kanonbildung in den Gender Studies. StudienVerlag.

Binswanger, C. “Shakespeares Schwestern, Medusen oder “Ich ohne Geschlecht?” Zu weiblichem Schreiben, Kanon und feministischer Literaturwissenschaft.” In M. Bidwell-Steiner and K. S. Wozonig (Eds.)  A Canon of Our Own? Kanonkritik und Kanonbildung in den Gender Studies (pp. 90–103). StudienVerlag.

Malhotra, A. (2020, January 14). “(In General) Towards a More Empathetic Cinephilia.” photogénie.

Shohat, E. & Stam, R. (1994). Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. Routledge.

Further reading suggestions:

Ba, S. M. & Higbee, W. (2012). De-Westernizing Film Studies. Routledge.

Teaching and Toolkits/Best Practices

Pluralizing Critical Theory / Canon Critique (includes Syllabi for Seminars)

Marieke Steinhoff

ifs internationale filmschule köln

Marieke Steinhoff coordinates the Film- and Comparative Media Studies Programme at the ifs internationale filmschule köln. Furthermore, she works as a curator for the Dortmund | Cologne International Women's Film Festival and co-curates the film historical series „Filmgeschichten“ at the Filmforum NRW in Cologne. In her curatorial work she deals with questions around film heritage and the process of canonisation, archives and diversity as well as the young German cinema.