Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation

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In Cultural Capital, John Guillory challenges the most fundamental premises of the canon debate by resituating the problem of canon formation in an entirely new theoretical framework. The result is a book that promises to recast not only the debate about the literary curriculum but also the controversy over "multiculturalism" and the current "crisis of the humanities." Guillory argues that canon formation must be understood less as a question of representing social groups in the canon than of distributing "cultural capital" in the schools, which regulate access to literacy, the practices of reading and writing. He declines to reduce the history of canon formation to one of individual reputations or the ideological contents of particular works, arguing that a critique of the canon fixated on the concept of authorial identity overlooks historical transformations in the forms of cultural capital that have underwritten judgments of individual authors. The most important of these transformations is the emergence of "literature" in the later eighteenth century as the name of the cultural capital of the bourgeoisie. In three case studies, Guillory charts the rise and decline of the category of "literature" as the organizing principle of canon formation in the modern period. He considers the institutionalization of the English vernacular canon in eighteenth-century primary schools; the polemic on behalf of a New Critical modernist canon in the university; and the appearance of a "canon of theory" supplementing the literary curriculum in the graduate schools and marking the onset of a terminal crisis of literature as the dominant form of cultural capital in the schools. The final chapter of Cultural Capital examines recent theories of value judgment, which have strongly reaffirmed cultural relativism as the necessary implication of canon critique. Contrasting the relativist position with Pierre Bourdieu's very different sociology of judgment, Guillory concludes that the
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Editorial Reviews

Guillory (English, Johns Hopkins U.) reframes the current debate as reflecting a "long-term decline in the cultural capital of literature." He examines the institutionalization of the "vernacular canon" in the 18th century; the rise of the New Critical canon in universities; and the advent of a "canon of theory" in the graduate schools. He reviews recent theoretical relations between aesthetics and value, and asserts that judgment should not be discredited. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226310435
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/1993
  • Series: Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology Ser.
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 408
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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Cultural Capital

The Problem of Literary Canon Formation

By John Guillory

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1993 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-31044-2


Canonical and Noncanonical: The Current Debate

The Imaginary Politics of Representation

Not only in their answers but in their very questions there was a mystification. —MARX, The German Ideology

Social Identity

In recent years the debate about the literary canon has entered a new phase, with the emergence in the university and in the popular media of a strong conservative backlash against revisions of the curriculum. Given the renewal and even intensification of the debate after what had seemed a successful transition to an expanded syllabus of literary study, the moment may now have arrived for a reassessment of the debate, and particularly of the theoretical assumptions upon which the practice of canonical revision has been based. These assumptions derive without question from the political discourse—liberal pluralism—to which we owe the most successful progressive agendas of the last three decades. It will not be my intention to question social objectives whose realization is both necessary and urgent, but to demonstrate that a certain impasse in the debate about the canon follows from the fundamental assumptions of liberal pluralism itself. This impasse is visible, for example, when the distinction between "canonical" and "noncanonical" works is institutionalized in two very different and even contradictory ways: as the canonization of formerly noncanonical works, and as the development of distinct and separate noncanonical programs of study. I shall argue in this chapter that the vulnerability of curricular revision to attack from the right is one consequence of the contradiction between integrationist and separatist conceptions of curricular revision, a contradiction that can be traced to theoretical problems with pluralism itself, and that threatens to disable an effective response to the conservative backlash.

While the explicitly political ends of canonical revision are obvious, it has not been sufficiently acknowledged how much the language of revision owes to a political culture which is specifically American. It will be my contention that however easy it has been for both progressive academics and their reactionary critics to conflate the critique of the canon with the forms of leftist and even Marxist thought, the terms and methods of canonical revision must be situated squarely within the prevailing conventions of American pluralism. These conventions have been usefully summarized by Gregor McLennan, in his Marxism, Pluralism, and Beyond, as follows:

—a sociology of competing interest groups;

—a conception of the state as a political mechanism responsive to the balance of societal demands;

—an account of the democratic civic culture which sets a realistic minimum measure for the values of political participation and trust;

—an empiricist and multi-factorial methodology of social science.

Within traditional liberal pluralist thought, individuals are conceived in their relation to the state as members of groups whose interests are assumed to conflict. Hence the object of representing these groups within the legislative institutions of the state is to negotiate among the interests of particular social groups or constituencies. "Representation" in political institutions now describes an important objective for many social groups, defined by a variety of forms of association: women, trade union members, the elderly, consumers, the sick, the disabled, veterans, and most recently members of minority ethnic or racial groups, the communities which constitute our pluralist society. In the context of the long-term development of democratic culture, the pluralist version of liberalism emergent in post-World War II American society registers a certain deepening crisis in the institutions of political representation, the sense (not necessarily conscious) of having reached an apparent limit in the capacity of these institutions to represent diverse social groups. This crisis has reached a new stage with the decline of postwar liberalism in American political culture and the resurgence of a strongly reactionary politics which now designs to purge liberalism from political culture in the same way that it formerly (and successfully) purged socialism. In response to an increasingly hostile climate of opinion, it would seem that the political culture of liberalism has established a last redoubt in the university, where the very extremity of its situation has deformed its discourse by rigidifying certain defensive postures. The deterioration of what was in the United States always a very limited program of economic socialization, along with a general decline in the credibility of democratic political institutions, constitute the immediate conditions for the development of a political critique of "representation" in contexts other than those formerly conceived as political. In retrospect it was only in the wake of liberalism's apparent defeat in American political culture that such agendas as "representation in the canon" could come to occupy so central a place within the liberal academy. The new curricular critique made it possible for the university to become a new venue of representation, one in which new social identities might be represented more adequately, if also differently, than in existing political institutions of American society.

If the politics of canon formation has been understood as a politics of representation—the representation or lack of representation of certain social groups in the canon—this circumstance may well be a consequence of the fact that, as McLennan points out, the "whole relationship between subjects, individuals and their identity as members of certain social categories is one which has been dramatically unsettled in recent social theory." Because the concept of "social identity" has undergone a kind of mutation, with which democratic institutions have not yet caught up, the venue of representation can be displaced to new arenas of contestation. But that displacement, while it reconceives a process such as canon formation as "political," leaves unclarified the question of the precise relation between a politics of representation in the canon and a democratic representational politics. In order to answer the question of what "representation in the canon" means within the larger context of American political culture, we must acknowledge at the outset that our concept of "social identity" is a product of that culture, and that only within that culture can the category of an author's racial, ethnic, or gender identity found a politics of curricular revision. Any reconsideration, then, of canon critique in its political context must begin with the notion of "social identity."

I propose to offer here a critique of the assumptions underlying the current understanding of the canon, a critique which derives its premises from a set of terms and arguments closer to Marxism than to liberal pluralism. But the point of such a reorientation is not to argue for the mutual exclusivity of Marxism and pluralism. I take it for granted that Marxism itself has theoretical limitations, which recent "post-Marxist" confrontations with pluralist methodology (for example, that of Laclau and Mouffe) have had to confront, with important theoretical results. The major terms of my analysis are drawn from the arguably post-Marxist theory of "cultural capital" elaborated in the works of Pierre Bourdieu. Insofar as the concept of cultural capital presupposes the concept of capital, and inasmuch as it foregrounds the category of class, Bourdieu's theory must be located within the Marxist rather than the pluralist critical tradition. The object at the present moment of advancing a Marxist critique (however qualified) of liberal pluralist revisions of the canon would be to indicate the inherent limitations in pluralist analysis in order to bring to light certain questions occluded by the current problematic of "representation." These questions concern the distribution of cultural capital, of which canonical works constitute one form. I will assume, following Bourdieu, that the distribution of cultural capital in such an institution as the school reproduces the structure of social relations, a structure of complex and ramifying inequality. However, it will not be possible to explore the relation between the canon and access to the forms of cultural capital, until we have first demonstrated the inherent limitations in the problematic of representation, in the very questions it asks.

For the purposes of that critique, we can extract from the current debate about the canon two pervasive theoretical assumptions: The first of these assumptions is implicit in the word "canon" itself, not until recently a common term in critical discourse. The word "canon" displaces the expressly honorific term "classic" precisely in order to isolate the "classics" as the object of critique. The concept of the canon names the traditional curriculum of literary texts by analogy to that body of writing historically characterized by an inherent logic of closure—the scriptural canon. The scriptural analogy is continuously present, if usually tacit, whenever canonical revision is expressed as "opening the canon." We may begin to interrogate this first assumption by raising the question of whether the process by which a selection of texts functions to define a religious practice and doctrine is really similar historically to the process by which literary texts come to be preserved, reproduced, and taught in the schools. This question concerns the historicity of a particular kind of written text, the "literary." Since the hypothesis of closure is a historical conjecture, it is subject to historical proof or disproof, a task I shall undertake in this and subsequent chapters.

The first assumption of canonical revision operates in concert with a second, which posits a homology between the process of exclusion, by which socially defined minorities are excluded from the exercise of power or from political representation, and the process of selection, by which certain works are designated canonical, others noncanonical. The second assumption clearly requires the first—literature as quasi-scripture—in order to make the claim that the process of canonical selection is always also a process of social exclusion, specifically the exclusion of female, black, ethnic, or working-class authors from the literary canon. The unrepresentative content of the canon is described in the rhetoric of canonical critique as a kind of scandal, after two millennia a scandal which has gone on long enough. If the forces of exclusion have been so powerful as to prevail without challenge until recent years, the strategy for their defeat has been surprisingly obvious, even simple. It has only been necessary to "open" the canon by adding works of minority authors to the syllabus of literary study. In this way the socially progressive agenda of liberal pluralism could be effected in a particular institution—the university—by transforming the literary syllabus into an inclusive or "representative" set of texts.

Again, it will not be necessary to dissent from the larger aims of the progressive social agenda (far from it) in order to raise a question at the level of theoretical assumptions about the relation between the literary curriculum and "representation." The movement to open the canon to noncanonical authors submits the syllabus to a kind of demographic oversight. Canonical and noncanonical authors are supposed to stand for particular social groups, dominant or subordinate. One can easily concede that there must be some relation between the representation of minorities in positions of power and the representation of minorities in the canon, but what is that relation? The difficulty of describing this relation is in part a consequence of the fact that a particular social institution—the university—intervenes between these two sites of representation. Given the only partially successful social agenda of educational democratization in the last three decades, we may conclude that it is much easier to make the canon representative than the university. More to the point, those members of social minorities who enter the university do not "represent" the social groups to which they belong in the same way in which minority legislators can be said to represent their constituencies. The sense in which a social group is "represented" by an author or text is more tenuous still. The latter sense of representation conceives the literary canon as a hypothetical image of social diversity, a kind of mirror in which social groups either see themselves, or do not see themselves, reflected. In the words of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the "teaching of literature" has always meant "the teaching of an aesthetic and political order, in which no women and people of color were ever able to discover the reflection or representation of their images, or hear the resonances of their cultural voices." I shall argue that the sense of representation as reflection or image inhabits what may be called the field of "imaginary" politics. But by the latter term I do not mean what is opposed to the real but a politics which is manifestly a politics of the image. Such a politics belongs to the same political domain as the ongoing critique of minority images in the national media, to the project of correcting these images for stereotyping, or for a failure to represent minorities at all. Such a politics has real work to do, as complex and interesting as images themselves, but it is also inherently limited by its reduction of the political to the instance of representation, and of representation to the image. It is only the first step toward a political critique of the literary curriculum to say that it is a medium of cultural images. This mode of canonical critique reduces the curriculum to such a medium, and thus, as we shall see, to a mass cultural form. In this sense the critique of the canon betrays its determination by certain postmodern conditions, by those conditions in which media images have the central ideological function of organizing our responses to virtually all aspects of our lives. If there is any difference worth considering between the politics of image-critique and the politics of canonical revision, this difference must inhere in the latter's institutional location. The literary curriculum is precisely not the site of mass cultural production and consumption, but the critique of the canon has proceeded as though it were, as though canon formation were like the Academy Awards. Clearly a "representative" canon does not redress the effects of social exclusion, or lack of representation, either within or without the university; nor would the project of canonical revision need to make this claim in order to justify the necessity of curricular revision. But in construing the process of canon formation as an exclusionary process essentially the same as the exclusion of socially defined minorities from power, the strategy of opening the canon aims to reconstruct it as a true image (a true representation) of social diversity. In so specifying "representation" as the political effect of the canon, the liberal pluralist critique fails to consider what other effects, even political effects, the canon may have at its institutional site.

Whatever effects the canon as an image of equal or unequal representation may actually produce within the university, we must nevertheless insist that the politics of canonical revision is in its present form an imaginary politics, a politics of the image. That is just the reason why the social effects of a representative canon are so difficult to determine. What the project of canon-critique still lacks is an analysis of how the institutional site of canonical revision mediates its political effects in the social domain. There is no question that the literary curriculum is the site of a political practice; but one must attempt to understand the politics of this practice according to the specificity of its social location. The specificity of the political here cannot mean simply a replication of the problem of "representation" in the sphere of democratic politics, and therefore it cannot mean simply importing into the school the same strategies of progressive politics which sometimes work at the legislative level. Should we not rather rethink the whole question of what the "political" means in the context of the school as an institution? The institutional question bears directly, I shall argue, on the current impasse at which the pluralist agenda is lodged, its vacillation between integrationist and separatist institutional strategies, between the incorporation of noncanonical works into the curriculum on the grounds that such works ought to be canonical, and the establishment of separate or alternative curricula of works which continue to be presented as "non-canonical" in relation to the traditional curriculum.


Excerpted from Cultural Capital by John Guillory. Copyright © 1993 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Canonical and Noncanonical: The Current Debate 3
2 Mute Inglorious Miltons: Gray, Wordsworth, and the Vernacular Canon 85
3 Ideology and Canonical Form: The New Critical Canon 134
4 Literature after Theory: The Lesson of Paul de Man 176
5 The Discourse of Value: From Adam Smith to Barbara Herrnstein Smith 269
Notes 341
Index 385
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