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Fairy Tales and Knowledge Creation in and Beyond Political Economy

by Kathryn Starnes on September 20, 2018

Recent conversations about authoritarian neoliberalism and literary geographies reconsider how foundational concepts in political economy stymie contemporary debates. Whether re-negotiating the idea of homo economicus or radically expanding the methodological tools used to critique neoliberalism, both conversations speak to political sites of knowledge production. These conversations contest political ideas that have previously been treated as apolitical, ontological, features of the canon. Key considerations of canon constitution underlie these conversations. What is a canonical text, and how does a text become canonical? How do we decide what that text should look like, and who are the arbiters of these decisions? These questions link my work on neoliberalism, international relations and fairy tales. They sometimes reveal that what was thought to be radical actually reiterates assumptions that limit the grounds available for critique. The conversations I cite above unpick some of these habitual assumptions, partially through an engagement with fiction.

Canons are tricky things. An introduction to any discipline might start by introducing us to founding fathers [i] and summarising their ‘main’ arguments. This story likely shapes our conception of a discipline as much as the texts themselves. We know this and yet when most enveloped in a discipline we may struggle to justify details of this story, instead relying on it in a general sense. These details nonetheless set the terms of debate and possibilities for knowledge production. What is considered legitimate knowledge is thus constrained by forgotten disciplinary boundaries, no longer visible for contestation. Survey courses and textbooks uncomfortably hint at this difficulty, aware that defining the canon is political. Beyond this foray into disciplinary introductions, however, many of us dwell in specific corners of a canon. We may contest the position of a few texts but this involves a de facto acceptance of the broader outlines of that space. Whether a work’s position is marginal or foundational is a conversation we negotiate avidly but I argue that the reiteration of general stories about the canon that we pay less attention to often obscure foundational assumptions that have a greater impact on our work than we realise. What are the things we fail to notice about a canon in its familiarity and how does this impact on the permissible spaces for critique?

Fiction affords a rich means to explore questions of canon by facilitating exploration of the processes of production within ‘foundational’ texts. In my book Fairy Tales and International Relations I argue that reading texts alongside a discussion of the evolution of the fairy tale canon that has recently sought to include previously excluded stories, which reveals two things: how and where canonical negotiations take place, and what some of these processes of production might look like. In one part of my analysis I focus on framing gestures, which reveal that what an author says about the text’s place in the canon and their own role in authoring the text constitutes a significant site in which canonical boundaries are negotiated. These gestures take many forms, but I focus on two kinds. The first, are those that frame the author’s task as one of curating the field—representing key points, apolitically and as scientific collectors of information.  I also identify framing gestures that emphasize creation. Creation defines the authoring process as one of constitution via what and how the author writes. Both gestures have implications for how that text fits into the canon, and for the possibilities for writing future texts and critiquing past texts. Those claiming curation foreclose possibilities for renegotiating their disciplinary stories, while those claiming creation invite these conversations as a part of the authoring process.

These gestures are inspired by fairy tales. Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers are well-known names attached to the fairy tale genre. More obscure are the names of Perrault’s female contemporaries, the Conteuses, who invented stories in the French salons, later recording and publishing them. These stories debated social conventions and courtly rules. Some of their authors had been ostracised for flouting these rules: marrying romantically (rather than arranged marriage), eschewing marriage, or mariticide. Their stories were written out of the fairy tale canon.  This was not based on quality but rather because their stories did not fit the criteria of a fairy tale established by the Grimms a century later: that it be short, formulaic and most importantly, be a ‘discovered’ folk tale from the oral tradition. Including these stories in the fairy tale canon sparks debates in folklore about what constitutes a fairy tale. One debate continued for years: are fairy tales written by creative authors, or curated by scientific collectors? By now, the myth of the scientific collector has waned. No one believes Perrault sourced his tales from a giant, foreboding fireside goose and we’ve long known the Grimms took liberties with the tales they collected, rewriting and inventing at whim. Nonetheless, the idea that how a tale came about, who wrote it and how it was written can matter as much as its content for its place in the canon remains central to folkloric conversations.

The Grimms’ extensive claims to collect ‘pure’ oral tales contrast with the Conteuses conversational style in which they openly re-wrote stories. I argue that in the context of International Relations these framing gestures have significant implications for re-producing rules about what counts as a contribution to the discipline, with exclusions ranging from political economy and feminism to a subtle suggestion that the discipline is itself defined as a problem-solving endeavour, dismissing critical theories while seeming to afford them equal weight. Calls for pluralism are thus often undermined by the way the call is issued. This has implications for pedagogy and the ‘state’ of the discipline, outlined in my book, but for now I turn to another implication that informs my collaboration with Ian Bruff, using similar techniques of reading to explore early neoliberal canonical texts.

The approach of reading texts as literary artefacts outlined in Fairy Tales and International Relations informed our reading of early contributions by Friedman and Hayek. By examining both authors’ voice and how they structure their arguments, we were able to explore how they established canonical boundaries that regulate the neoliberal canon and constrain contemporary critiques. Reading texts as literary artefacts reveals that sometimes what an author says in the text is undermined by how it is written. As academics we are trained to read and write in particular ways, often stemming from efforts to strip value-judgements from our writing. This process is so familiar that we often fail to recognise where our techniques of writing have political implications. How we write shapes the political act of representation in our texts, and gestures towards value-neutrality may obscure these political sites, immunising this representation from critique and renegotiation. How we read thus also forms a political engagement and it is incumbent on us to examine the political process of reiterating canonical boundaries that occurs when we (re)read any text as a part of the canon. Fairy tales, like many of the other literary artefacts explored in this space, render some parts of canon negotiations visible where they were previously difficult to detect.

This has political and scholarly implications for what the canon permits as a legitimate contribution and what it excludes.

[i] Founding disciplinary voices remain overwhelmingly male, a gendered aspect of canon constitution that fairy tales help to illuminate.

Kathryn Starnes
Kathryn Starnes is a lecturer in International Relations in the History, Politics and Philosophy department at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is the author of Fairy Tales and International Relations: A folklorist reading of international relations textbooks (Routledge 2016) and recently co-authored 'Framing the Neoliberal Canon: Resisting the market myth via literary enquiry with Ian Bruff for a special issue of Globalizations. Her work explores the sociology of knowledge creation and epistemic violence through engagement with fairy tales and the Gothic. You can find her on Twitter at @IR_MotherGoose

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